Europe in Communism’s Crosshairs

16 October 2012, 20:45

The constituent congress of the Comintern (the Third International), which was held in Moscow in March 1919, was a striking example of a farce played by the Bolsheviks on the stage of the Russian revolutionary theatre. A mere five delegates from abroad attended, while the rest were elected by the Bolshevik-ruled Central Committee from among its foreign symphasizers who were in Moscow at the time. Some of them had never even been to the countries they represented at the Congress, while certain party organisations whose delegates they purported to be did not exist at the time, not even on paper. However, these technical details did not matter much to the majority of delegates representing the European left movement. To them, Moscow was a socialist Jerusalem with a mission to bring “a bright future to all mankind”.


The Comintern was designed by Lenin not simply as an international organisation of communist parties, but as a foreign policy tool which the Kremlin could strictly control and use to carry out a “proletariat revolution”. Essentially, it was a single, worldwide communist party under the cover of a union of party organisations. The cadre policy, financing and provisioning for the Comintern network, as well as the tactical and strategic decisions of its national sections, were secured by the Bolsheviks under close oversight of the Soviet special services.

Lenin’s “21 conditions”, which European socialist parties had to meet to be accepted to the Comintern and which introduced a military-like discipline for its members, were approved by its second congress in 1920. All communist parties had to act in both legal and illegal ways. The document deprecated representative democracy and legitimised violence and the absolute primacy of class struggle, the spread of civil wars and the dictatorship of the proletariat. These points clearly signalled an emerging totalitarianism.

The Comintern was structured on the Bolshevik model and served exclusively the interests of its Russian part. German Karl Radek, a representative of Russia on the Comintern’s Executive Committee, openly stated: “Because Russia is the only country in which the working class took power into its hands, workers across the world must now become its patriots.” Most foreign communists agreed to this unchallengeable axiom and essentially became slaves to Moscow.

Grigory Zinoviev, chief of the Comintern, said in 1919 that its Executive Committee had both the right and the obligation to interfere with the activities of member and candidate parties. The channel of this interference was representatives dubbed “the eyes of Moscow”. They were dispatched by the Bolshevik Central Committee to parties and communist groups in European countries as its grey cardinals and focused on causing rifts inside old European socialist political forces which led to the establishment of new communist parties in Great Britain, France, Italy, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia in 1920-21.

European communist parties took guidance from the goals defined by the Comintern at the international level. These governed the national dimension which was restricted to individual societies. The Executive Committee operated as “a projector of the Cheka directed outside Russia”. It defined the strategy and tactics of national communist parties and was the “General Staff of the world revolution”.


When the Bolsheviks failed to spark socialist revolutions in Central and Eastern Europe (above all, Hungary, Poland, Germany and Bulgaria) despite conducive post-war conditions, Lenin and his comrades-in-arms were forced to revise their strategy for European communist parties and switched from tactics of attack to those of siege. Armed uprisings and the export of revolution were replaced with a more subtle way of penetrating European politics: the national arms of the Comintern participated in parliamentary elections in alliances with left-wing social democrats.

The policy of each of the national communist parties hinged on the role their country could play in promoting Soviet interests. In 1919-33, Germany was the focus of the Bolsheviks’ foreign policy and was later replaced by Spain, France and Italy.

Outside the legal structures of national communist parties, a secret Comintern network was growing. It was controlled by the foreign relations department set up specifically to direct subversive activities abroad. At the same time, a network of “dummy organisations” spread across European states with Moscow’s help. These pro-Soviet structures engaged in covert propaganda in favour of the USSR and sunk deep roots in the milieu of left-wing European intellectual elites. It was with their aid that an idealised, “peaceful and rosy” image of the Soviet Union was cultivated in Western Europe, although it was poles apart from real life under Soviet totalitarianism.

Still, despite certain success of the Comintern’s covert activities in Europe, the overall influence of the communists on the local proletariat was negligible. Prior to the 1929-33 economic crisis, workers largely favoured socialist and social democratic parties. The cataclysmic Great Depression provided fertile soil for communist parties in industrialised European countries. As the totalitarian regime completed its formation in the USSR in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Comintern and the network of European communist parties became fully integrated into Stalin’s structure of power. Following the dictatorship of the “chief of all peoples”,  personality cults of communist leaders sprang up in Europe: Maurice Thorez in France, Palmiro Togliatti in Italy, Dolores Ibárruri in Spain, Klement Gottwald in Czechoslovakia and  Ernst Thälmann in Germany. This helped instil discipline among local communists and keep them under control. In turn, local general secretaries acted on direct orders from the Kremlin.

On Moscow’s initiative and following Soviet examples, internal show trials of various “faction groups” and “opportunists” who went against the Comintern’s policies were staged. Each communist party was transformed into a cell of a totalitarian system, while continuing to function against the background of European democracies. In this system, a person who refused to do the will of the Soviet party-state invariably risked being destroyed.

The Soviet repression and mass purging of the 1930s did not spare European communists with the German, Polish and Yugoslavian sections of the Comintern being hit the hardest.


The communists competed for influence in the left movement in 1928-33 and followed Moscow’s directives which instructed them to fight against social democrats who were depicted as “minions of bourgeoisie” and “the biggest enemies of the working class” within the broader strategy of class struggle. This tactic led to the catastrophe of the Communist Party of Germany after the Nazis rose to power in 1933.

Hitler's growing influence was a perfect opportunity for the USSR to position itself as a defender of European civilisation against Fascism. In June 1934, following Stalin’s command, the Comintern told European communist parties to team up with all left forces on an “anti-fascist platform”. This policy was later fixed at the organisation’s 7th congress in 1935. In the new conditions, European communists were forced to present themselves as “anti-fascists” and make electoral alliances with their former foes on the left wing. The tactics of setting up these unions (People’s Fronts) was most successful in France and Spain. After the failure of Germany’s Communist Party in 1933, its French and Spanish counterparts came to the fore in the Comintern’s strategy due to the changing foreign policy priorities of the Kremlin.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in Spain, the USSR tried, under the cover of aiding the Republic’s forces, to establish the Communist Party of Spain as a monopolistic left-wing player and thus secure an additional “pillar of socialism” in the westernmost part of the continent. In 1937, the war Stalin waged against Trotskyism among Spanish republicans gradually began to eclipse the war against Franco. Communist repression against Trotsky’s followers in Spain forced many an activist to leave the left movement. This eventually became one of the causes leading to the defeat of the republican forces in the Civil War in April 1939.


Another change of direction in the USSR’s foreign policy after a pact with Hitler was signed in August 1939 caused a new round of re-orientation for European communists. Now they had to follow Moscow’s orders and make an about-face, calling on their national governments to stop fighting Hitler and also removing anti-fascist rhetoric from their own propaganda. After Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, the Kremlin completed the circle by issuing a call to European communists to immediately join anti-Nazi resistance. The communist parties of France, Italy, the Benelux countries, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Poland, Czechoslovakia and others put up active resistance and managed to create a new (later utterly glorified) image of fighters for the liberation of European nations from Nazi invaders.

The capital earned in the anti-fascist armed struggle was successfully invested by the communists to improve their standing in Europe. For example, the communist parties of Italy, France and Greece rose to unheard-of levels of popularity after the war. In Italy and France, the communists took a fourth of the seats in the lower chambers of their parliaments and joined coalition governments. In Greece, the reds became initially involved in a bloody civil war to seize power but were later abandoned by Stalin to the mercy of the government’s and British troops in line with his agreements to divide up the spheres of influence on the continent.

As Bolshevism threatened to spread across Western Europe and the confrontation between Western states and the Soviet Union aggravated, communist ministers were expelled from the French and Italian government in May 1947 under pressure from US President Harry Truman. The United States supported Athens in its fight against the communist Democratic Army of Greece and the left-wing military forces were defeated there in 1949. Despite the implementation of the “Truman doctrine”, the French and Italian communist parties were still the most powerful non-ruling political forces for nearly 20 post-war years as they were in opposition to official Paris and Rome.


European communism, which urged the European reds to drop the idea of a worldwide proletarian revolution and dissociate themselves from the Soviet Communist Party, spread in the 1970s and the 1980s, delivering a powerful blow to the pro-Soviet forces in the radical left movement. The new goals promoted by European communism included social reform, loyalty to democratic institutions and expanding the social basis by involving the middle class and supporters of new social movements, such as feminism, pacifism and sexual minority rights advocacy. The communist parties of Italy, Spain, Great Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Austria adopted the positions of European communism, which revealed the growing erosion of the Stalinist model of the international communist movement.

Disassociation from Moscow was a key factor for a structural transformation of the entire Western left movement, departure from ultra-radical sectarianism and revolutionary utopia and rapprochement with social democracy, moderate socialism and sometimes the green movement, all of which were integral parts of the democratic system in European countries. The only party that remained faithful to Stalin’s line to the end was the Communist Party of France, whose excessive revolutionary zeal caused it to lose much of its base.

Ultra-left terrorism was a reaction to these processes in the Western European communist movement and a kind of offshoot of the Cold War. Supported and supplied by the KGB and the satellite special services of socialist countries, communist terrorism was the first outbreak of political violence on the continent after the Second World War.

Apart from the terrorist activities in the last decades of the USSR’s existence, the heritage communism left in Western Europe includes, above all, numerous myths, stereotypes and false notions about the democratic and nationally oriented nature of this movement. Politically, several decades of a strong radical left pole established by the communists in a number of Western and Southern European states were the foundation for the emergence of polarized political systems.

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