A brief history of the world communist movement

BY:Emile Schepers| October 3, 2018
A brief history of the world communist movement


Scientific socialism as we know it today developed out of the early 19th century critique, by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their comrades and followers of what they called utopian socialism.

The term “utopian” refers to the book Utopia, published in the year 1516 by the 16th Century English philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More.

The utopian socialists expressed beautiful ideas about a better world, but their plans fell short because they were not rooted in the material reality of early industrial Europe and its growing class struggle between capitalists and workers.

In the context of the expansion of industry and the industrial proletariat in Europe, Marx and Engels came on the scene.

In London, an organization called the League of the Just (Bund der Gerechten), headed by Karl Schapper, and Heinrich Bauer, brought together radical German refugees. Meanwhile, The Communist Corresponding Society had been set up in Brussels, Belgium, by another group of exiles from Germany, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.  As the two groups had very similar goals, namely of uniting the working class movement in all of Europe around a program of struggle, they merged in 1847 to form the Communist League (Bund der Kommunisten), based in London.  Marx and Engels were assigned the job of drawing up a document stating the principles of the new organization.  The result was the Communist Manifesto, considered by millions to be the founding document, not only of communism, but of scientific socialism in general.  The Manifesto lays out the dialectical and historical materialist approach to understanding the march of history, and analyzes the way capitalist society is both based on class domination, and undermined by the rise of the proletariat.  It ends with the stirring words “You have nothing to lose but your chains, and you have a world to gain! Workers of all nations, unite!” This clearly sets out the idea principle later called “proletarian internationalism” (or working-class internationalism) which is still central to the communist movement today.

Revolutions of 1848 and Temporary Setbacks

No sooner had the Communist League been founded and the Manifesto published than all hell broke loose in Europe, in the form of the Revolutions of 1848.  These were rebellions in Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, France and the smaller German states against the authoritarian social order that had been imposed by the winners of the wars against Napleonic France.  They had in common that both the bourgeoisie and the expanding industrial proletariat were in the front lines of the struggle, in an alliance against the absolute monarchies (the kings of France and Prussia, the Emperor of Austria, rulers of the smaller German states, the Pope and others).  The demands were for the expansion of democracy and the freedom of the people, but not, explicitly, socialism. Nevertheless Marx, Engels and the other socialists and communists of that time supported these revolutions actively, Engels going so far as to buckle on a sword and head for the actual battle front (hence, and also because of his interest on writing on military matters, his nickname as “General”).  But the revolutions were defeated in every country, and even more European exiles poured into Britain, the one country where the people had not risen in armed rebellion.

The Communist League did not survive long beyond the defeat of the European revolutions. A Prussian government spy got hold of the Communist League’s membership list, and several members of the League were arrested and put on trial for their role in the Revolutions of 1848, as a period of repression and reaction set in.  One conclusion that Marx and Engels drew from the defeat was that even in the struggle against the remnants of the old feudal order, the bourgeoisie is a weak reed for the working class to lean on, and the creation of entirely working class political formations and politics is therefore essential.  Meanwhile, Marx and Engels took worked on honing their economic and political analysis, adapting Hegel’s idealistic “dialectical” method of analysis to apply to the analysis of material phenomenon – hence another synonym for Marxism, “the materialist dialectic” later called “dialectical materialism”.

The First International and the Paris Commune

The working-class movement in Europe was down but not out, and recuperated from the defeats of 1848-1849.  By 1864, the project of creating an organization to bring together the workers’ movement Europe-wide and beyond led to the creation of the International Workingmen’s Association, often called the “First International”. Again, Marx and Engels played a leading, but not undisputed role.

From the beginning, there were strong internal tensions in the International Working Men’s Association.  It included not only the strong core of followers of Marx and Engels, but also trade unionists who wanted to concentrate on labor struggles only and not political ones, and anarchists from the less industrialized parts of Europe.   But the international nature of the movement prospered, spreading to many areas in the United States as well as Europe. This was the beginning of Marxian socialism and communism in our own country.

The anarchist tendency in the Association was led by the Russian Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876).  Bakunin, like Marx and Engels, was a former admirer of the conservative German Philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Bakunin disagreed with Marxism on key points.  Rather than the creation of a transitional socialist state, Bakunin called for a stateless society of cooperative groups. That stance, and Bakunin’s propensity for factional intrigues, eventually led to conflict between him and the Marxists.

But as all this ferment was going on in the International Workingman’s Association, war broke out in Europe.  The ambitious Emperor Napoleon III of France allowed himself to be goaded into a war with the German states led by their military powerhouse, Prussia, and was soundly defeated, captured and forced out of power.  As the Prussian troops marched toward Paris, the citizens of the capital, with the participation of their militia, the National Guard, took over power in the city and instituted a radical regime called the Paris Commune.  A right-wing republican regime, established in nearby Versailles, moved, with Prussian acquiescence, to overcome and crush the Commune.

A number of members of the International Working Men’s Association, including close friends of Marx and Engels, participated in the governance and military defense of the Commune.  It implemented a number of radical measures which were very advanced for the time: For example, workers whose employers had abandoned their businesses could take control of the concerns and run them for their own benefit, separation of church and state, abolition of interest on debts, and radical democratization of governance of the city.  These things horrified the French and European bourgeoisie, and on May 21, 1871 the regular army entered Paris. By the end of that month, the Commune was crushed, and the restored bourgeois government carried out sickeningly bloody reprisals, with thousands of men, women and children executed without trial. Others were given long prison terms, while thousands more went into exile.

In a pamphlet called “The Civil War in France”, which Marx wrote to sum up, for the International Workingmen’s Association, the lessons he drew from the Commune, he included this important passage: “One thing especially was proved by the Paris Commune, viz. the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.

In other words, after the working class overthrows the power of the capitalist class, new worker-controlled state machinery must be created from the start.  This subsequently became an important difference between the respective attitudes of communists on the one hand, and “moderate” socialists, or, as we now say, social democrats on the other.

The End of the First International and Work Toward the Second

The disagreements between Marxist socialists and Bakuninist anarchists continued to destabilize the International Workingmen’s Association. Finally, in 1872, the Hague (Netherlands) Congress of the International Working Men’s Association voted to move the organization’s headquarters away from London and to New York, isolating it from European disputes and effectively killing it.

Labor and socialist organizing now continued everywhere in the world, where both Marxist and anarchist ideas had spread.  For a while, there was not an international coordinating structure, however. Marx and Engels turned their attention once again to developing their theoretical work and writings. The first volume of Marx’s most famous work, Capital (Das Kapital) had already been published in German in 1867, and further volumes were projected.  (However, Volumes II and III had to be finished by Engels after Marx’s death in March of 1883).

By the mid 1870s, socialist groups had been maturing in many countries. In Germany, there was a sharp rivalry between the followers of Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and those of another German socialist pioneer, Ferdinand LaSalle (1825 -1864) on the other (LaSalle had been killed in a duel in 1864, but his followers continued to have a major influence in German socialism).  In 1875, Lassalians, Marxists and others came together in the city of Gotha in Lower Saxony to try to unite to found a new socialist party. The new party, which was ancestral to today’s SPD, or German Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemocratisches Partei Deutschlands) included in its program mish-mash of ideas which met with Marx’s strong disapproval.  In particular, Marx frowned on the failure of the “Gotha Program” to reflect the international nature of the working-class struggle, and was highly suspicious of its attitude toward the bourgeois state.

The flaws that Marx identified in the Gotha program were an early sign of the schism that would break the communist movement away from the social democratic, or “moderate” socialist one.

Meanwhile anarchist organizing, and its variant, anarcho-sindicalism, continued alongside socialist organizing.  Though there was often conflict between the two orientations, there was sometimes cooperation also, and the two tendencies often overlapped and “interpenetrated”.  One such situation happened in Chicago in 1886. In the context of the huge “Eight Hour Day” movement, workers were striking the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory on the Southwest side of the city.  Private factory guards fired on the strikers on May 3, and several were killed. The next day, there was a mass protest at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, organized by the socialist and anarcho-sindicalist leaders of the movement.  A bomb was thrown, very likely by an agent-provocateur, as a group of policemen were moving to break up the peaceful rally.  Several police were killed, and also some workers in the shooting which followed. The government put eight leaders of the Eight Hour Day movement in jail, and after a joke of a trial, hanged four of them (one had committed suicide in jail).

Already there has been a growing opinion that a new international socialist organization needed to be established to replace the long-vanished First International.  The Chicago Haymarket incident and other sharp labor struggles heightened the urgency. On July 14, 1886, after a small preliminary action in 1881, the Second International was founded without much of an anarchist presence. A lasting legacy was the designation of May 1 as International Workers’ Day, in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs.

Achievements of the Second International

In spite of the diverse nature of the parties and leaders involved in the Second International, it achieved important advances for the workers’ movement and the cause of socialism.  In the first place, it spread the basic message of Marxism far more widely than had ever been possible before. Affiliate parties of the Second International represented every continent except for Antarctica.  At the first formal Congress of the Second International, on July 14 (Bastille Day) in 1889, parties from two dozen countries were represented. By the beginning of the First World War, many millions of workers’ belonged to the Second International parties.

In Germany and other places where Second International parties were strong, they accomplished many things that were beneficial to the working class.  They had mounting electoral successes, and got legislation passed that protected labor rights. They were heavily engaged in union organizing alongside  their socialist educational and legislative work. They advanced social welfare programs such as health insurance and retirement benefits, and were strongly represented in the struggle for women’s rights. For these reasons, at their height, the Second International Parties scared the world’ ruling class as much as the communist parties did later on.

In spite of Marx’s misgivings expressed in his critique of the Gotha Program, the idea of international working-class solidarity continued to be a major theme of Second International socialism.  And there were sharp criticisms of colonialism and imperialism from important Second International leaders. For example, the German Social Democratic parliamentarian and leader August Bebel played an important role in exposing and denouncing the genocidal actions of the German government and military in the repression and near extermination of the Herrero and Nama nations in German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia).

 The First World War and the Crack-Up of the Second International

The incoherences in the Gotha Program, already noted by Marx, began to manifest themselves, in one form or another, in the world socialist movement.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), an important figure in German socialism, had been an associate of Marx and Engels but began to distance himself from their basic outlook on issues of the state and the transition toward socialism.  He believed that capital was not becoming more concentrated, thought that capitalism would be transformed into socialism by legislative reforms, and jumped on the German nationalist bandwagon, adopting support for colonialism as a mechanism to help “backward” peoples to advance.  Denying the inevitability of systemic crises in capitalism in the future, he promoted “economism”, i.e. the stressing of ameliorating the economic conditions of the working class without attempting to challenge bourgeois control of the state.

Bernstein was sharply criticized by more left-wing members of his own party, who accused him of opportunism.   In her pamphlet Reform or Revolution? another member of the German Social Democratic Party, Rosa  Luxemburg (1871-1919), sharply criticized Bernstein for his revisionism, opportunism and economism—precisely those things that became major currents of thought not only in Germany, but in a number of other socialist parties worldwide.

In the Social Democratic Party of Russia, a similar dispute led to the split of the majority radical faction, or Bolsheviks, from the minority reformist faction, or Mensheviks, in 1903.  The principal Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin (1870-1924), had, a year earlier, laid out his views on what a socialist party should be and how it should be organized in his book What is to be Done?  In Lenin’s opinion, the purely economic struggle of the workers would not, by itself, lead to revolutionary  change and socialism; that Marxists should be organized to introduce the element of revolutionary consciousness into the working-class struggle, and that for this purpose they should form a different kind of political party, more tightly organized, to carry on this work.

The Mensheviks, for their part, took up an “ultra-orthodox”  stance on the possibility of socialist revolution in Russia, claiming that according to Marxist  doctrine, such a thing would be impossible until capitalism was fully developed in the country.

Similar disputes, with variations, occurred within socialist parties all over the world, but meanwhile the development of the worldwide capitalist system, with its imperialistic competition for colonies, resources and markets, was building international tensions up to a level that a major war seemed almost certain. The Second International held its Seventh Congress in Stuttgart, the capital of the Kingdom of Wuertemberg, Germany, in August of 1907.   Even though the revolutionary versus reformist tensions were evident in the conference hall, the delegates nevertheless approved a bold resolution  denouncing militarism and the march toward war, and calling for the working classes of all countries involved to mobilize to prevent war from breaking out and to fight for a speedy end to hostilities should it break out anyway.

Then exactly seven years later, in August of 1914, the First World War did indeed break out, between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) against the Triple Entente (France, the UK and Tsarist Russia), with other countries later diving into the mayhem.  But the leaders of many of the social democratic parties, and many of their representatives in parliament, failed utterly to keep their promises to prevent war and to stop it once it broke out. Important figures of the world socialist movement, such as Plekhanov in Russia, abandoned the position decided on at Stuttgart and enthusiastically came out in support of their own governments.

There were exceptions:  In the United States, Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926), a major leader of the Socialist Party of America, managed to keep his party from supporting U.S. entry in the war, and in fact received a stiff jail sentence for his anti-war activities.  A leading French socialist leader, Jean Jaures, was assassinated in July 1914 because of his attempts to stop the outbreak of the war.   In Germany Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, along with others on the left of the German Social Democratic Party, also militantly opposed the war—a position which helped define the “left” in the socialist movement worldwide.  The left of the socialist movement saw this surrender to nationalism and war fever as a monstrous betrayal of the working class and humanity, and it led to a definitive break between reformist social democracy and what eventually became the world communist movement and the Third International.

The Second International Splits; the Bolshevik Revolution, the Third International

The Russian people, devastated by the impact of the First World War, overthrew the Romanov monarchy in February of 1917.  A government of bourgeois liberals and moderate socialist took power. This “Provisional Government”, however, was unable to meet the demands of the working class and the masses and, moreover, wanted to continue the war with the Central Powers instead of finding a way to make peace.

The Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin and now also by Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), a former Menshevik who had moved over to the Bolshevik side, put out the slogan of “Peace, land, bread!” and denounced the war policy of the Provisional Government, along with advancing a radical socialist program that also promised to break up the big landed estates in favor of the peasants.  Large numbers of workers, poor peasants and rank and file soldiers were attracted to the Bolshevik cause by this program, and by the energetic work of the tightly organized Bolshevik cadres. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution in Russia, called the October Revolution due to a difference in the Russian calendar in use at that time.   The Bolshevik government, initially in coalition with a left-wing faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, moved fast to implement radical measures. One of these was the publication of the secret treaties among the nations, which had set the stage for the outbreak of the war.

The Bolsheviks, recognizing that Russia could not win the war, opened negotiations with the Central Powers for a peaceful exit from the conflict.  But the Germans especially played a hard game and took advantage of Russia’s willingness to negotiate in order to seize large amounts of Russian territory and to set up a German-puppet government in Ukraine.  Helped by the capitalist powers, the right-wing “White Guards” mounted a multi-pronged effort to overthrow the Bolshevik government, leading to a bloody civil war. Some of the former Menshevik leaders took the side of the White Guards, others reconciled themselves with the Bolsheviks, and yet others went into exile, thus effectively putting an end to social democratic (in the modern sense of the term) politics in Russia.

But the central powers lost the war, and the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Turkish monarchies were overthrown by popular uprisings.  Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Emperor-King Karl of Austria-Hungary and other minor German rulers went into exile. For a while, both branches of the socialist movement—the radicals and the “moderates”– were riding high.   The Social Democratic Party established a government in Germany under Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party. The army and conservatives agreed to this, in part in order to implicate these “reasonable” socialists in Germany’s defeat, and in part to stop the more radical socialists, who came to be called Spartacists, from overthrowing the whole capitalist order.  Ebert had not even wanted an end to the Hohenzollern monarchy, and negotiated a deal with the German army whereby its privileged status in society would be preserved.  This had terrible consequences a very few years later. The Social Democratic Party government instituted various economic and democratic reforms, but the basic nature of the German state was minimally altered.  To stop the Spartacists, Ebert allied with military units returning from the front to “keep order”. In late December 1918, the Spartacists and right-wing paramilitary (Freikorps) and military forces allied with Ebert’s government had armed clashes in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. The Spartacists were crushed and two of the best known leaders of the German left, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. The Spartacists, having broken off all relationships with the Social Democratic Party, became the German Communist Party.

Similar things happened elsewhere, “Bolshevik” forces briefly took over in Bavaria and also in Hungary.  These “red” revolutions were also crushed, often with the connivance of social democratic parties and politicians.

The Third International, the COMINTERN and the Founding of Communism in the United States.

The successful revolution in Russia, the crushing of similar  efforts in Hungary and elsewhere, and the disgraceful role played by “moderate” socialists in siding with reaction against the revolutionaries, led to a worldwide split in the socialist movement.  In a great many countries, the left wings of existing socialist parties moved to break away from the Second International. The breakaway “lefts” began to refer to themselves as communist parties, while the term “social democrat” began to be applied to those parties that retained the politics of the Second International.

In the United States several groups claimed the “Communist” mantle.  The main ones were the Communist Party of America, whose members were mostly immigrant workers and which was headed by Charles Ruthenberg, and the Communist Labor Party, headed by John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow, which included more U.S. born workers.  Eventually, the newly created COMINTERN persuaded these two groups to merge, creating  the Communist Party USA (the CPUSA) which exists today. The CPUSA and its predecessors included the left wing of the Socialist Party, but also attracted many people from the anarcho-syndicalist International Workers of the World (IWW or Wobblies) including future Communist Party leaders such as John Reed, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and William Z Foster.  Other IWW members who became close to the Communist Party included Lucy Parsons and Helen Keller.

And what was the COMINTERN?  In 1919, a number of parties from around the world met in Moscow to create a third, or communist international which would be based on the revolutionary principles that most of the leaders of the Second International had abandoned.  This communist international was known as the COMINTERN. At its founding, the participating parties laid down a set of rules for adherence.  These including breaking with the politics of the reformist social democratic parties, creating and maintaining their own presses, and defending the Soviet Union.  The COMINTERN was firmly based on the principle of proletarian (working-class internationalism).

Triumphs and Troubles of the COMINTERN

In its 24 years of existence, the COMINTERN did many positive things.  It maintained the principles of working-class internationalism and anti-imperialism that had been part of the Marxist program from the beginning and had been particularly emphasized by Lenin.  For this reason, communist parties from places as far apart as South Africa, Vietnam and Mexico were eager participants in its work. It organized support for workers, and communist struggles in many places, most notably for the Spanish Republic during the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939.

On the other hand, there were some problems.  The COMINTERN’s rules mandated that adhering parties defend the Soviet Union, but this sometimes caused problems for those parties, especially when they were expected to defend the Soviet leadership against its internal critics and rivals.

Lenin died in January of 1924, and as he had feared, a sharp rivalry arose between two of his leading comrades in the party and in the Soviet government.  The Georgian Communist Josef Stalin (1878-1953) and Leon Trotsky did not see eye to eye on a number of key issues. One of these was how to build the Soviet Union, given that it had come into being in a relatively backward country with a low level of industrialization and an industrial working class that was hugely outnumbered by the peasantry.  At the time of the October Revolution, Lenin and all his colleagues had expected socialist revolutions to take place in at least one major industrialized capitalist country, which then could help Russia to industrialize also. This did not happen. Lenin then backed off his government’s most radical goals and entered into a phase called the New Economic Policy (NEP) which made wide ranging concessions to peasants, other small producers and some capitalists, with the idea of encouraging activities that would build up the economic forces of the country.  Stalin’s inclination was to continue this policy after Lenin’s death, i.e. to “build socialism in one country”. Trotsky, on the other hand, thought the Soviet communists should not try to build the country through concessions of the NEP kind and should do more to promote revolutions in other countries; this was his idea of the “permanent revolution”.

The conflict between Stalin and Trotsky, which came to have a personal dimension also, caused a split within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, with Stalin’s group prevailing.  Trotsky and many of his followers were expelled from the Soviet party, and later subjected to repression. I

The COMINTERN’s policy in China created some disquiet on the part of Chinese communists, who were not happy with the close relationship of the COMINTERN’s representatives in their country with Chiang kai-Shek’s Kuomintang party.

At the Sixth Congress of the COMINTERN, held in Moscow in 1928, a mistaken analysis of the revolutionary potential of the capitalist countries was adopted.  Today this is referred to as the “Third Period”. This was an ultra-left deviation in which it was held that capitalism worldwide was entering its third stage and final crisis, and that socialist revolution was imminent everywhere.  The tactical conclusion was that all COMINTERN parties should prepare for imminent insurrectionary action, and should break with and sharply denounce all tendencies within the workers’ movement that did not agree that the revolution should be led by them.    Any relations with social democratic parties were to cease and these parties were to be denounced as “social fascists”.  This sectarian mistake had very bad consequences in many places, including for example Germany, where it made it harder to form a united front to block Hitler and his Nazis.

But after Hitler came to power (following Mussolini who seized power in Italy in the 1920s), and as fascist groups gained strength all over Europe, the COMINTERN  carried out a sharp corrective move. COMINTERN General Secretary Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949), reporting to the Seventh Congress of the COMINTERN in 1935, emphasized the need to develop a united front with all forces willing to make a stand against fascism, both at the working-class mass level and at the level of relations among political parties.  To switch from the “Third Period” sectarian ultra-leftism to the “Popular Front” call for unity against fascism was no easy task, but it was adopted by all the COMINTERN parties.

Meanwhile, the communist parties of Germany, Italy and other countries with right-wing or fascist governments had been entirely banned, though many continued to operate in clandestinity.

The Spanish Civil War

A major test for the COMINTERN’s popular front policy soon arose, with the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July, 1936.  When right-wing military officers supported by Spain’s fascist organizations rose against the Spanish Republic, the Spanish Communist Party, in accordance with its own analysis and in conformity with COMINTERN policy, prioritized defeating the rebellion, rather than overthrowing the centrist republican government.  Some on the far left saw this as a betrayal, but the extreme brutality of the rebel troops headed by General Francisco Franco Bahamonde (1892-1975), and the entry of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy into the conflict on the side of Franco demonstrated the validity of the Spanish communists’ approach. The whole of the COMINTERN (all the communist parties including the Communist Party USA) organized support for the Spanish Republic.  Though the Republic was defeated (and many U.S. communists and other leftists who had defended it were later persecuted under McCarthyism as “premature anti-fascists”—a matter of pride and not shame for most), this can be seen as a high point of the COMINTERN.

World War II                          

In August 1939, the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany signed the so called “Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact”.  This was a non-aggression pact between the two countries, which involved, also, the de facto division of Poland.  Many of the world’s communist parties, which had been emphasizing the struggle against fascism, were blindsided by this and felt they had to praise the agreement.  This harmed the reputation of communists in a number of countries, and created legal problems for them in some, such as France where the Communist Party was immediately banned.  If the Spanish Civil War can be seen as the high point of the COMINTERN, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact may have been the low point.

In June of 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Germany’s allies soon followed suit with their own declarations of war.  Once again, defense of the Soviet Union against fascism became the highest priority for the COMINTERN parties. In the United States, Norman Thomas (1884-1968), the leader of the Socialist Party of America, initially opposed U.S. involvement in the War, though he later changed his mind on this.

In countries occupied by Nazi Germany, such as France, Italy and Greece, the communist parties, working with other anti-fascists, were instrumental in organizing armed resistance which struck serious blows against the Nazis and local collaborators.

End of the COMINTERN

At the height of the Second World War, the COMINTERN decided to dissolve itself.  The decision was announced on May 15 1943 (the Communist Party USA had also asked to be separated from the COMINTERN in 1940, and this was agreed to by the body).  The reasons given for dissolving the COMINTERN were eminently practical and in line with the popular front analysis that had been presented by Dimitrov at the 7th Congress in 1935.  “…long before the war, it had become increasingly clear that, to the extent that the internal as well as the international situation of individual countries became more complicated, the solution of the problems of the labor movement of each individual country through some international centre would meet with insuperable obstacles”.  So now the world’s communist parties could feel free to create their own united fronts and alliances, and employ other tactics that best suited, in their estimation, the situation in each of their countries.

The Cold War, McCarthyism and Repression

At the cost of millions of lives and vast suffering and economic loss, and with the Soviet Union playing the most important and heroic part, the Second World War was won and European fascism crushed almost everywhere (except Spain and Portugal). Socialist governments came to power in Eastern Germany (the German Democratic Republic), Poland, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Albania, and communist movements revived strongly in Italy and France.

All over Europe and beyond, the communist parties, whether operating legally or not, continued to strive for a far broader mass presence in the unions, in every other kind of people’s organization in politics including the electoral and legislative fields, and in journalism, culture and the arts.  This refutes the idea propagated by some that the communist parties were (and area) closed conspiratorial groups.

Very quickly, the period called the Cold War, with the efforts of imperialism to halt, by force if necessary, any further advances of socialism, became the focus of the United States and other major capitalist governments.  The formation of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) had this purpose, and was immediately countered by the defensive Warsaw Pact. The imperialist powers, seeing the possibility of the triumph of a left-wing government in Greece, intervened bloodily on the side of the right-wing monarchy in that country.

In the United States, the General Secretary of the Communist Party USA, Earl Browder, who had also been a major figure in the work of the COMINTERN, made a miscalculation as to the future course of events.  He had developed the idea that the capitalist-socialist cooperation that had been maintained to crush fascism during the war could be continued indefinitely, and that out of such cooperation socialism could be achieved in the United States as well.  There was, within the world communist movement and within the U.S. party, a sharp negative reaction to Browder’s attitude, and his action in dissolving the Communist Party USA and replacing it with the “Communist Political Association”. It having become clear that the World War II alliance would be replaced by increased hostility of the major capitalist powers to the Soviet Union and to the communist movement, the Communist Party USA removed Browder as leader and expelled him from the party in 1946.

Revolutions in China, Korea and Vietnam; the Korean War

The defeat of Japanese imperialism in East Asia opened up the door to great revolutionary changes in China, Korea and Vietnam.  In all three countries, communist parties had become powerful through their determined struggle against the Japanese military, gaining the support of millions of workers and peasants.  But none of these three countries were advanced industrial powers, so in each case the early experience of the Soviet Union, namely the coming to power of a communist party happened in a country that was still largely agricultural and where peasants greatly outnumbered industrial workers.  This had profound implications for the way that socialism developed in each of these Asian countries. But in Korea and Vietnam, imperialist intervention ended up with countries split, with communist parties, in each case, in power in the north, and imperialist controlled right wing governments in the South, setting the stage for the Korean and Vietnam wars, respectively.

McCarthyism and Persecution of Communists

In the United States starting in the late 1940s, and to a lesser extent in some other countries, the end of the World War II alliance between the USSR and the West ushered in an era of very sharp persecution of communists and the labor movement generally.  This is sometimes called “McCarthyism” because of the prominent role played by U.S;. Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin, but it included many other important figures and public bodies. Two of the most important of these were the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) and the Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, which dedicated themselves to root out communists and suspected sympathizers from government employment, key industries and the artistic and cultural fields.  Laws were passed making the Communist Party illegal in numerous states, communists were driven out of the teaching profession (including at the university level), Communist Party USA leaders were jailed under various pretexts, and careers and lives were ruined. Central to McCarthyism was the largely successful effort to drive communists out of the labor movement. The Taft-Hartley Law of 1947 damaged our country’s labor unions, and the rights of U.S. workers, in many ways.  It struck a blow at both unions and the left by forcing union officials to sign affidavits that they were not members of the Communist Party USA.  Unions that kept people who refused to sign such affidavits in leadership positions lost many of their legal rights. In many cases, communists who held positions in unions which, in fact, the Communist Party USA had played a major role in building, thought it better to resign from their union’s leadership rather than jeopardize its future.  Using these and other methods, the ruling class and the government managed to drive a wedge between the Communist Party and its social base in the working class, doing damage that it has taken decades to repair.

The Death of Stalin and the Khrushchev Speech of 1956

Joseph Stalin died on March 5, 1953.  In the ensuing power struggle within the Soviet party and government leadership, a protégé of Stalin, Nikita Sergeyevich Khrushchev, emerged as first secretary of the Communist Party and Soviet Premier.  At the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, in 1956, Khrushchev gave a speech, “On the Cult of Personality and its Consequences”, in which he denounced many of the practices of government and party in the Stalin period.  A large number of political and non-political prisoners were released, and reforms instituted that were designed to improve the material standard of living of the Soviet population.

The so called “Secret Speech” at the 20th Party Congress had a huge impact in the other communist led countries of eastern and central Europe: Poland, the German Democratic Republic, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania.   In several of these countries, most notably Poland and Hungary, the revelations led to street protests, and in a number of countries the old leadership, which had been close to Stalin’s thinking, was replaced by new leaders who rejected it.

The Khrushchev speech and related developments in the Soviet Union also produced turmoil in communist parties outside the socialist bloc.

The “Sino-Soviet Split”.                                      

After Mao Zedong’s People’s Revolutionary Army ousted the U.S. supported Kuomintang of Chiang Kai-shek from China in 1949, the People’s Republic of China received considerable development help from the Soviet Union.  However, things did not go entirely smoothly in the relationship between the two socialist giants. There were long standing territorial disputes that went back to the old Tsarist days; these were partly settled by the Soviet government, but not fully.  There were differences over the role of peasants as opposed to workers in the building of socialism. And after the 1956 Khrushchev speech, Mao Zedong and his Chinese comrades began to suspect that the Soviet leadership was going to sell out the world communist movement in favor of a less confrontational stance toward the United States and the other capitalist powers.  So the Chinese leadership set itself up as the true defenders of the heritage of Lenin and Stalin, with the Soviet leadership damned as “revisionists”. In the ensuing dispute, only one small Eastern European socialist country, Albania, took the Chinese side.  The extremely large Indonesian Communist Party did too. In a number of capitalist countries, there were splits within the non-ruling communist parties

The Cuban Revolution Raises Hopes for Socialism

On January First, 1959, insurgent troops headed by Argentine-Cuban revolutionary Marxist Ernesto “Che” Guevara entered Havana, Cuba after having defeated the forces of the U.S. supported dictator, Fulgencio Batista.  Cuba’s new Prime Minister and later President, Fidel Castro Ruz, Che and their comrades fought off efforts by the United States to crush the Cuban Revolution by means of an economic blockade, sabotage and invasion. With U.S. trade cut off, Cuba developed close economic ties to the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc.

For the first time in history, an actual communist-led government was able to establish itself in the Western Hemisphere and hold onto power – 90 miles from the United States. The mere fact of this, plus the dynamic and innovative way in which the Cubans set about building socialism, served as a great stimulus to communists and left-wing socialists worldwide.  In every country in Latin America and beyond, communists and left-wing socialists began to pay close attention to the Cuban experience for ideas on how to revitalize the socialist project. And the Cuban revolutionaries revived the idea that socialism might indeed defeat capitalism everywhere.


Starting in the mid 1970s, a number of communist parties, mostly in Europe, developed a reorientation toward the Marxist and Leninist concepts of the nature of the state in capitalist society.  Spanish Communist Party leader Santiago Carrillo, especially, to the development of this “Eurocommunist” tendency with his 1977 book “Eurocommunism and the State”.    The Eurocommunist position was that, although the state continued to be a mechanism of class domination, it could be “democratized” to the point that it could become the instrument of transition from capitalism to socialism.  In fact all the communist parties in capitalist countries has almost always fought for democracy within the institutions of capitalist society; Carrillo and the Eurocommunists took this much farther though, and the concept of class struggle as the road to socialism tended to be underemphasized, while multiclass alliances working within the state apparatus were overemphasized.  In those parties that adopted the most extreme versions of Eurocommunism, liquidationist tendencies gained strength. This led to the eventual dissolution of the once enormous Italian Communist party and the similarly powerful Mexican Communist Party. The Spanish Communist Party and others survived and changed their policies away from the extremes of Eurocommunism but several other parties ended up dissolved, split or significantly reduced in influence.

The Collapse of Soviet and Eastern European Socialist States

During the 1970s and 1980s, an accumulation of economic, social and other problems created a high level of instability in the Soviet Union and in the other socialist states of Eastern and Central Europe.

In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, General Secretary of; the Communist Party of the Soviet Union from 1985 until 1991, instituted a set of sweeping reforms which encompassed the way that the country was governed, the relationship between the Communist Party and the Soviet state, and the relationship of the Soviet Union to the other Eastern European socialist states.  At the 27th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Gorbachev began to roll out a reform program widely labelled as “glasnost” (openness) and “perestroika” (restructuring).  This entailed more freedoms, but also more freedom for managers of socialist state enterprises to behave like capitalist CEO’s and engage in empire building and personal enrichment.   People in positions of authority and influence within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union began to promote openly anti-communist positions. Leading party figures such Boris Yeltsin, head of the Communist Party in the capital city, Moscow, led an aggressive effort, not to improve or reform, but to dismantle socialism in the land of the October Revolution.  Yeltsin and his allies also promoted Russian nationalism, a stance that was echoed by nationalist movements in several of the Soviet Union’s constituent republics. Efforts to turn back this push to restore capitalism were met with force.

At the end of the 1980s, socialist states had collapsed in Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the (East) German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia.  The same thing happened in Mongolia, but China, Cuba, Laos, the People’s Republic of Korea and Vietnam remained under socialist leadership, and do so to this day.

The end came for the Soviet Union in 1991, when the Communist Party lost power and the country broke up into its constituent republics.  Czechoslovakia broke into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Yugoslavia broke up into Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.  The Yugoslavian breakup was accompanied by violent wars and “ethnic cleansing”.

In many of these states, the former communist parties transformed themselves into social democratic parties, while more traditional communist elements split off from them and formed their own parties. Strong fascist movements came to the surface in a number of the former socialist bloc states, and there was repression against the communist parties and their members.  Parties and their symbols were banned and there were legal and extra-legal attacks against their leaders and members. Assets of communist parties, including the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, were confiscated and became part of the basis of the fortunes of brand new, super-corrupt “oligarchs”.

The major imperialist states, including especially the United States, were not slow in “fishing in troubled waters”.  U.S. corporations, non-profits and state entities rushed into the former socialist states, selling them a neo-liberal bill of goods based on the supposed magical powers of ”free” trade, privatization and austerity.

Socialism Revives

The collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialist-led states was a terrible blow to the working class worldwide.  It led some apologists for capitalism to take the triumphalist attitude that socialism and communism were just pipe dreams and that history had “ended” and that capitalism was here to stay, forever.  Within a few years, the fallacy of this attitude began to be revealed by events on the ground. The aggressive imposition, by the ruling class and its political agents, of the neo-liberal program of rigged, corporate friendly “free” trade, privatization and repression produced a backlash that led to militant grassroots organizing and mobilization in many countries, and the revived working class and people’s forces began to achieve tactical victories.  The “water wars”  in Bolivia at the beginning of the 21st Century, and the election of the radical leftist Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela in 1998, plus the recuperation of socialist Cuba from the crisis caused by the collapse of Soviet and Eastern European socialist states, re-awakened both interest and activism throughout Latin America in the socialist idea.

The election of leftist governments, some of which had explicitly socialist goals, in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guyana, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and St. Vincent and the Grenadines represented a huge challenge to the imperialist world order.  Even more threatening to capitalism was the work these governments undertook to create mechanisms of economic and political cooperation not dependent on the United States, Western Union, the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund.

Currently, the “Bolivarian pink tide” of leftist governments is in difficulties, and the left has lost power in a number of important countries,, but the mobilized social base in each country, for a program of social justice that is explicitly or implicitly based on socialist concepts, continues to expand rather than contract.  The communist parties in the region remain extremely active in this international movement, and work together with other leftists and socialists through groups like the Sao Paulo Forum to fight against imperialism and the right.

And this is the case not only in Latin America.  The end of the apartheid era in South Africa, and the election of Nelson Mandela as President in 1994, has allowed the South African Communist Party to greatly expand its work with that country’s working class and masses, with the result that it now has hundreds of thousands of members and is a major force in the country’s politics and government.

Although there is no more COMINTERN, a group of 115 communist and workers parties have been holding regular meetings to compare strategies under the aegis of the Solidarity Network (Solidnet).     In some countries where the communist parties had dissolved themselves they are reviving; in other areas, including the United States, communist parties are seeing a surge in membership.

Into the Future:  Socialism or Barbarism

Humanity cannot continue like this.  The degradation of the natural environment and the brutally unsatisfactory living conditions that the capitalist mode of production has brought into being worldwide are reawakening, everywhere, the dream of a world based on love and cooperation instead of selfishness and dog-eat-dog competition—a word without exploiters and exploiters—in short, a socialist world.

It is up to us to create such a world, for our children and our children’s children.

This essay is adapted from an oral version the author presented to the Communist Party USA’s National Party School, August 2018.

Image: Facebook.



    Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Emile Schepers was born in South Africa and has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He has worked as a researcher and activist in urban, working-class communities in Chicago since 1966. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He now writes from Northern Virginia.


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