printable version

Printable version

August 1988

Prometheus Research Series 1

Table of Contents


We are proud to publish what appears to be the only complete and accurate English translation of the final text of “Guidelines on the Or­gan­iza­tional Structure of Com­mu­nist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work,” and “Resolution on the Or­gan­iza­tion of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al,” both Resolutions adopted by the Third Congress of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al in 1921. In addition we publish as appendices, also for the first time to our knowledge, English translations of the German stenographic record of the reports on and discussion of these Resolutions at the 22nd and 24th sessions of the Congress.

“Guidelines on the Or­gan­iza­tional Structure of Com­mu­nist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work” is one of the great documents of the international communist movement, standing as the codification of communist or­gan­iza­tional practice as it was forged by the Bolsheviks and tested in the light of the world’s first successful proletarian revolution. The Third Congress of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al systematized the Russian Bolshevik experience for the fledgling international communist movement, producing both the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution and the “Theses on Tactics” and serving, in the words of Leon Trotsky, as “the highest school of revolutionary strategy.”1

The Third Congress met in Moscow from 22 June to 12 July 1921 when the revolutionary wave which had swept Europe in the wake of World War I had nearly receded. The lack of steeled and tested communist parties had proved decisive to the defeat of proletarian revolutions in Germany, Hungary and in part in Italy. The international Social Democracy, reorganized as the Amsterdam-based Second In­ter­na­tion­al and still claiming the allegiance of substantial proletarian forces, had shown itself to be for the time an indispensable tool of bourgeois rule. By 1921 a certain temporary stability had been reimposed on the capitalist world: the ruling classes of Europe had learned some lessons from the Russian Bolshevik victory.

The young and untested communist parties still had to learn their lessons from the victory of the Bolsheviks. The left wing of world Social Democracy, as well as a significant section of the revolutionary syndicalist movement, had been won to the communist banner under the impact of the October Revolution. By 1921 large communist parties existed in many countries, but many were “communist” in little more than name, harboring centrist leaders who had followed their membership into the new In­ter­na­tion­al only reluctantly. The “Conditions of Admission to the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al” (more popularly known as the Twenty-One Conditions) were adopted by the Comintern’s Second Congress in an attempt to separate out this centrist chaff and make the new parties break both programmatically and or­gan­iza­tion­al­ly with the reformists. The Twenty-One Con­di­tions established democratic central­ism as the or­gan­iza­tional basis for the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al. Yet demo­crat­ic-cent­ral­ist or­gan­iza­tion­al norms were only lightly sketched by the Second Congress, which met in July 1920 in the midst of immense revolutionary ferment. Earlier that year the Red Army had turned back the invading Polish Army of Marshal Pilsudski, and as the Congress opened Soviet troops stood at the gates of Warsaw. It was the hope and expectation of the Soviet government and of the Congress delegates (who closely followed the Red Army’s progress on a map in the Congress hall) that the Red Army’s advance would spark a proletarian revolution in Poland. This would have moved the proletarian revolution west to the borders of Germany, with its still unfinished revolutionary developments. Un­for­tu­nate­ly this hope proved unfounded and the Third Congress had to take stock of a more somber world situation.

In “Guidelines on the Or­gan­iza­tional Structure of Com­mu­nist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work” the Third Congress expanded upon the or­gan­iza­tional norms laid out by the Second Congress. V.I. Lenin explained the purpose and importance of this Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution in a letter to the German Com­mu­nists written shortly after the Third Congress completed its work:

In my opinion, the tactical and or­gan­isa­tional res­olu­tions of the Third Congress of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al mark a great step forward. Every effort must be exerted to really put both resolutions into effect. This is a difficult matter, but it can and should be done.

First, the Com­mu­nists had to proclaim their principles to the world. That was done at the First Congress. It was the first step.

The second step was to give the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al organisational form and to draw up conditions for affiliation to it—conditions making for real separation from the Centrists, from the direct and indirect agents of the bourgeoisie within the working-class move­ment. That was done at the Second Congress.

At the Third Congress it was necessary to start practical, constructive work, to determine concretely, taking account of the practical experience of the communist struggle already begun, exactly what the line of further activity should be in respect of tactics and of organisation. We have taken this third step. We have an army of Com­mu­nists all over the world. It is still poorly trained and poorly organised. It would be extremely harmful to forget this truth or be afraid of admitting it. Submitting ourselves to a most careful and rigorous test, and studying the experience of our own movement, we must train this army efficiently; we must organise it properly, and test it in all sorts of manoeuvres, all sorts of battles, in attack and in retreat. We cannot win without this long and hard schooling....

In the overwhelming majority of countries, our parties are still very far from being what real Com­mu­nist Parties should be; they are far from being real vanguards of the genuinely revolutionary and only revolutionary class, with every single member taking part in the struggle, in the movement, in the everyday life of the masses. But we are aware of this defect, we brought it out most strikingly in the Third Congress resolution on the work of the Party.2

In fact Lenin played a major role in the drafting of the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution and can rightly be called its ideological author: the Finnish Com­mu­nist Otto W. Kuusinen wrote the text under Lenin’s direction, sending him the first draft on 6 June 1921. Lenin made detailed suggestions for reworking this draft and all Lenin’s suggested additions, itemized in a letter to Kuusinen written on 10 June, were subsequently incorporated into the Resolution’s final text. According to the editors of the Collected Works, Lenin also read a second draft of the Resolution sent to him in mid-June, before approving yet another draft on 9 July, the day before the Resolution was first discussed by the Congress.3

At that point Lenin suggested two additions to the draft Resolution and these number among the revisions made by the Commission on Or­gan­iza­tion and finally adopted by the Congress on 12 July. Yet the Commission on Or­gan­iza­tion made a number of other changes to the text approved by Lenin—in particular a whole new section, “On the Or­gan­iza­tion of Political Struggles,” was added. To understand the reason for this addition one has to understand the major political disputes that took place at the Third Congress. In the first instance these revolved around the recent tactics of the United Com­mu­nist Party of Germany (VKPD)—the infamous “March Action.”

By 1921 the VKPD had won a following among the coal miners of Mansfeld in central Germany, which was then the country’s center of labor militancy. Strikes and plant occupations swept the region; on 16 March the government deliberately provoked the workers by sending in troops and police. The VKPD responded with a call for armed resistance—a quasi-in­sur­rec­tion­ary call. While the workers of Mansfeld fought heroically, if sporadically, in the rest of Germany the VKPD’s call was for the most part unheeded. Yet instead of seeking to retreat in good order, the VKPD made matters worse by calling for a general strike. Isolated strikes by VKPD supporters ensued, and they were easy targets for bourgeois repression. The casualties were very high and a number of VKPD leaders were arrested. Within three months, the VKPD membership dropped by half.

The Comintern had sent the Hungarian Com­mu­nist Béla Kun (leader of the failed 1919 Revolution in Hungary) to Germany early in March and Kun’s insistence that a communist party always be on the offensive against the bourgeoisie (the so-called “theory of the offensive”) played no small role in inspiring the 1921 “March Action.” Given the disastrous events in Germany, both Lenin and Trotsky saw in Kun’s false “left” current a mortal danger to the future of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al and they resolved to wage a fight against this adventurist current at the Third Congress. According to Clara Zetkin, the leading opponent of the leftists in the German party, before the opening of the Third Congress Lenin spoke to her on the “theory of the offensive” in the following terms:

Is it a theory anyway? Not at all, it is an illusion, it is romanticism, sheer romanticism. That is why it was manufactured in the “land of poets and thinkers,” with the help of my dear Bela, who also belongs to a poetically gifted nation and feels himself obliged to be always more left than the left. We must not versify and dream. We must observe the world economic and political situation soberly, quite soberly, if we wish to take up the struggle against the bourgeoisie and to triumph.4

However in the Political Bureau (PB) of the Russian party Grigori Zinoviev and Nikolai Bukharin (the latter a candidate member) originally supported Kun and failed to see the danger that the adventurist theory posed to the young Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al. While full documentation of the Political Bureau dispute on this question awaits the opening of the archives of the Com­mu­nist Party of the Soviet Union, we do have Trotsky’s account:5 Lenin obtained Lev Kamenev’s support for his and Trotsky’s position, thus securing a majority against the “left” on the five-man PB. However, in the Russian delegation to the Executive Committee of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al (ECCI) Karl Radek, along with Zinoviev and Bukharin, generally supported the “left.” Trotsky and Lenin drew Kamenev into meetings of the Russian ECCI delegation, though Kamenev was not formally an ECCI member. Trotsky reports that, for a period of time, the two opposing sides met in separate caucuses, indicating a pre-factional situation. The seriousness with which Lenin viewed the situation is clear from his remarks to a meeting of the ECCI which preceded the Third Congress: “But if the Left succeeded in making Béla Kun’s views prevail, that would destroy Communism.”6

In the end, however, the members of the Russian delegation apparently came to some agreement among themselves, compromising on the “Theses on Tactics” and for the most part presenting a united face to the Congress. Clara Zetkin says that, prior to the Congress, Lenin lectured her on the necessity of being lenient with the “left.”7 While Lenin spoke against the “theory of the offensive” on the floor of the Congress, for the most part the battle took place in the various Commissions which met in con­junc­tion with the Congress.8 The compromise for­mu­la­tions adopted in the various resolutions allowed the “left” to save face.

While combatting a real danger on the left, Lenin and Trotsky also had to wage battles against the centrist elements which were still influential in many parties: the sorting-out process initiated by the Twenty-One Conditions had only just begun. The Congress confirmed the expulsion of VKPD leader Paul Levi, who had publicly and slanderously denounced the party’s course in March as a “Bakuninist putsch” (point 51 of the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution, on party discipline, was obviously written—and amended by the Congress—with Levi in mind). On the “March Action” there was a compromise. While condemning the tactical errors of the VKPD, the “Theses on Tactics” also described the “March Action” as a step forward insofar as it represented the heroic response of a section of the German working class, fighting under communist leadership, to an overt provocation by the bourgeois state. Yet Lenin also insisted that the “Theses on Tactics” firmly endorse Levi’s attempt to apply united-front tactics to Germany—the “Open Letter,” which Levi had authored (with help from Radek) before his expulsion and which had been widely denounced as “opportunist” in the German party.9 The Open Letter, printed in Die Rote Fahne on 8 January 1921, had proposed joint actions of all German working-class or­gan­iza­tions (including the Social Democrats) against the bourgeoisie’s attacks on the pitiful living standards of the German proletariat.

With Germany still very unstable and the German party one of the largest in the Comintern, the perspective of world revolution reduced itself in the first instance to the perspective of a German revolution. Lenin was especially concerned that the German party overcome Kun’s adventuristic pseudo-leftism: the “March Action” fiasco had clearly demonstrated that the party had very little idea of how to win leadership of the majority of the working class away from the defenders of the bourgeois order in the German Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the In­ter­na­tion­al Federation of Trade Unions (the “Amsterdam” In­ter­na­tion­al).

The party had to find the road to the masses. And the VKPD wasn’t the only party in the In­ter­na­tion­al in need of guidance on this question. Most parties had to overcome the paralyzing effects of the social-democratic or­gan­iza­tional forms that they had inherited with their membership. Thus the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution explains in extensive, some­times painful, detail the means for forging the reciprocal ties between the party leadership and the membership, and between the membership and the class, which would allow the communists to involve all their members in ongoing work and prove themselves the best leaders of the proletariat in action. As Lenin wrote in his 10 June letter to Kuusinen:

There is no everyday work (revolutionary work) by every member of the Party.

This is the chief drawback.

To change this is the most difficult job of all.

But this is the most important.10

In this letter Lenin urged Kuusinen to find a “real German” comrade to improve the German text of the Resolution and read Kuusinen’s report to the Congress. On 11 June Lenin wrote urgently to Zi­nov­iev to make the same point:

I have just read Kuusinen’s theses and one-half
of the article (the report)....

I do insist that he and he alone ((i.e., not Béla
Kun)) should be allowed to give a report at this con-
gress without fail.

This is necessary.

He knows and thinks (was sehr selten ist unter
den Revolutionären [which is a great rarity among

What needs to be done right away is to find one
German, a real one, and give him strict instructions

to make stylistic corrections at once,

and dictate the corrected text to a typist.

And at the congress read out for Kuusinen his

The German will read it out well. The benefit
will be enormous.11

Thus it was that at the last moment Wilhelm Koenen of the VKPD was drawn into the redrafting of the Resolution. It was Koenen who gave the reports on the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution to the 22nd and 24th sessions of the Third Congress. Koenen had recently come over to the Com­mu­nists with the Left Wing of the Independent Socialist Party of Germany (USPD) and had given the or­gan­iza­tional report at the founding conference of the VKPD in December 1920. Arriving in Moscow in early 1921, Koenen had been co-opted onto the “Smaller Bureau” (Presidium) of the ECCI.12

Koenen was certainly a “real German”—and also a supporter of the “theory of the offensive.” In the Report he delivered to the Congress on 10 July (see Appendix A, “Report on the Or­gan­iza­tion Ques­tion”) Koenen quotes Béla Kun favorably at least six times and never even mentions Otto Kuusinen or Lenin, the actual authors of the Resolution. Koenen’s opening remarks repeat many of the points that he made in his report to the founding conference of the VKPD.13 Thus it would appear that the report delivered by Koenen to the Third Congress was not precisely the one prepared by Kuusinen and endorsed by Lenin in his letter to Zinoviev.

Koenen spends the bulk of his Report detailing a number of changes made to the draft Resolution and he explicates some of the Resolution’s points, stressing, for example, the importance of building ties with the revolutionary syndicalist shop stewards movements which then existed in a number of European countries (Koenen had been active in the shop stewards movement in Germany while a leader of the USPD). Yet over half of Koenen’s Report is spent explaining the new section of the Resolution. While Koenen gives lip service to Levi’s “Open Letter,” it is clear from his Report that he viewed this new section, which was incorporated into the final text of the Resolution in a slightly modified form (Section V—“On the Or­gan­iza­tion of Political Struggles”), as a partial justification of Kun’s “offensive” tactics. Indeed Section V—a highly or­gan­iza­tional and hence confused rendition of points better made in the “Theses on Tactics”—is written more turgidly and with much less political depth than the rest of the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution. This section does not appear in the published draft of the Resolution and it is doubtful that it was distributed to the delegates before being introduced to the Congress; we have found no evidence that it was seen by Lenin.14

In his 10 July Report Koenen also introduced a Resolution on the Or­gan­iza­tion of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al. This Resolution, which calls for the strengthening of the Comintern’s Executive Com­mit­tee, was written at the suggestion of the VKPD delegation. The Congress referred both the draft Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution and this new Resolution on the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al to a Commission on Or­gan­iza­tion, which was to meet in two subcommittees the following day.

The Commission on Or­gan­iza­tion met on 11 July under considerable pressure—they had only one day to make revisions before reporting back to the 24th and final session of the Congress. They made many minor additions and changes to the Resolution, but it is unlikely that by the opening of the 24th session they were able to produce a new printed version incorporating all their changes—even a text in German, which was the language of the draft Resolution and the main language used on the floor of the Congress. Koenen’s report to the 24th session implies that only the change in the section on democratic centralism was available to the delegates. In any event the Congress adopted the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution in this last session as it had been amended by the Commission, including the new section proposed by Koenen. With the Congress now over, the Comintern’s production apparatus must have been under considerable strain to produce the various language texts of the final Resolution before the delegates left Moscow.

It is thus not surprising that there exist dis­crep­an­cies between the various language versions of the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution and of the Resolution on the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al. The stenographic record of the Congress provides the only guide as to the definitive text of these Resolutions, which is why we have appended a translation of the relevant portions of the German-language stenographic report of the Congress.

One provision of the Resolution on the Or­gan­iza­tion of the Com­mu­nist In­ter­na­tion­al engendered a heated debate at the 24th session, resulting in the only roll-call vote at the Third Congress (see Appendix B, “Report of the Commission on Or­gan­ization”). The dispute arose over the composition of the Presidium (at the time called the Smaller Bureau) of the Comintern’s Executive Committee. Point 5 of the draft Resolution allowed the ECCI to co-opt non-ECCI members to its Smaller Bureau. Boris Souvarine, a French delegate speaking in the name of the French, Spanish, Swiss, Yugoslav, Austrian and Australian delegations, opposed this co-option provision. He proposed an amend­ment limiting Smaller Bureau membership to elected members of the ECCI. Souvarine’s amend­ment may have been a maneuver against the supporters of the “theory of the offensive”: the only non-ECCI members of the Smaller Bureau at the time were Béla Kun and Koenen himself.15 Radek, speaking in the name of the entire Russian delegation, vehemently opposed Souvarine’s amend­ment on the grounds that it did not give the ECCI adequate flexibility. The amend­ment failed. At that point Zinoviev stepped in with a proposal for a “compromise” which allowed the ECCI to co-opt non-ECCI members to the Smaller Bureau only as an “exception.” Zinoviev’s compromise formulation was adopted over­whelmingly.

We have translated the Resolutions from the German text of the Third Congress Theses published in Hamburg in 1921, the only version which contains Zinoviev’s compromise formulation in the Resolution on the Or­gan­iza­tion of the CI (see “A Note on the Translation”).

There appears to be one other issue of major controversy relating to the Or­gan­iza­tional Res­olu­tion at the Third Congress. In Koenen’s Report to the 22nd session (see Appendix A, “Report on the Or­gan­iza­tion Ques­tion”), he mentions “certain dif­fer­ences—which, I believe, still cannot be definitively resolved at this Congress—over whether from now on the or­gan­iza­tions can finally be built on cells in the factories, as the basis of the or­gan­iza­tions.” Koenen goes on to imply that trade-union “cells” would be preferable to “working groups” based on district, or territorial, forms of party or­gan­iza­tion. Since the bureaucratizing Zinoviev-Stalin faction, and then later the anti-revolutionary Stalin faction, distorted this concept in the direction implied by Koenen, it is worth quoting in full the key provisions of the 1921 Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution:

11. In order to carry out daily party work, every party member should as a rule always be part of a smaller working group—a group, a committee, a commission, a board or a col­legium, a fraction or cell. Only in this way can party work be properly allocated, directed and carried out.

Participation in the general membership meetings of the local or­gan­iza­tions also goes without saying. Under conditions of legality it is not wise to choose to substitute meetings of local delegates for these periodic membership meetings; on the contrary, all members must be required to attend these meetings reg­ular­ly....

12. Com­mu­nist nuclei are to be formed for day-to-day work in different areas of party activity: for door-to-door agitation, for party studies, for press work, for literature dis­tri­bu­tion, for intelligence-gathering, com­mu­ni­ca­tions, etc.

Com­mu­nist cells are nuclei for daily communist work in plants and workshops, in trade unions, in workers cooperatives, in military units, etc.—wherever there are at least a few members or candidate members of the Com­mu­nist Party. If there are several party members in the same plant or trade union, etc., then the cell is expanded into a fraction whose work is directed by the nucleus.

This concept of a disciplined communist working group, variously called a fraction, cell or nucleus— the link between the party and the broad working masses—is key to the Or­gan­iza­tional Resolution. In its advocacy of disciplined communist working groups functioning in conjunction with party branches organized on a territorial basis, the Third Con­gress Resolution follows the or­gan­iza­tional norms evolved by the Bolsheviks for work in pre­revolutionary Russia:

2. it is desirable that Social Democratic cells in trade unions, which are organized along oc­cupational lines, should function wherever, lo­cal conditions permit in conjunction with par­ty branches organized on a territorial basis....16