Why the Three Internationals Couldn’t Agree

On April 2, 1922, reformists and revolutionaries from three rival internationals met in Berlin in a bid to agree to a common program. Ending in failure, it was the last time for decades that Communists and Social Democrats would meet as ostensible comrades.

Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin speaks at the Second International Congress in 1920. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS via Getty Images)

For most of the twentieth century, the workers’ movement was divided into two distinct camps. Though both social democracy and communism traced their origins to the original International Workingmen’s Association, founded in London in 1864 by Karl Marx and other radicals, by the 1920s, the two currents had hardened into rival organizations and worldviews. After World War II, they represented opposite sides of the Cold War. By the 1990s, communism as a mass movement had all but disappeared, while social democracy, though still a significant political force, had long ceased to be a working-class movement.

Such an anticlimactic ending was unthinkable for socialists a hundred years ago. Whether reformist social democrats like Tom Shaw of Britain’s Labour Party, revolutionary Marxists like the Bolshevik Karl Radek, or those somewhere in between like Austrian socialist Friedrich Adler, socialism was the only conceivable horizon for humanity’s future. The movement had gone from conspiratorial circles to parties with millions of supporters in the span of two generations. The recent world war, which cost Europe 40 million lives and untold destruction, had heightened contradictions across the continent and brought socialists to power in several countries — in Russia through violent revolution, in Germany and Austria through the ballot box.

Yet the war had also brought the tension between reformists and revolutionaries to a head. What had once been a single movement now splintered into several feuding camps whose disunity weakened both sides and made them vulnerable to co-optation by their enemies. It was against this backdrop that, on April 2, 1922, three delegations assembled in Berlin in the Reichstag, the seat of the German parliament. As Austrian socialist Otto Bauer put it, the aim was to “bring together the three armies into which the proletariat has been unfortunately divided, so that they may be able once more to march together against the common enemy, and, united, defeat that enemy.”

The fruitless undertaking would be the last of its kind — never again would social democrats, socialists, and communists meet eye to eye with the aim of developing a common strategy. The chasms engendered by mutual distrust and the pressures of state building on both sides proved too great to be overcome with well-intentioned resolutions.

The Three Internationals

Whether Communists or Social Democrats, for many of the delegates who made their way to Berlin in early April 1922, the meeting must have felt a bit like a political homecoming of sorts. One decade earlier, most of them had been members of allied socialist parties, united under the banner of the mighty Second International led by Emile Vandervelde of the Belgian Workers’ Party. Speaking on the first day of the conference, Vandervelde himself remarked, “A sight like this is not without a certain grandeur, to see today in this assembly, whether as journalists or delegates, such men as [Viktor] Chernov, [Fyodor] Dan, or [Julius] Martov, side by side with Radek or [Nikolai] Bukharin.” For Radek, speaking at a meeting of the Communist International several months later, the brief reunion with his former comrades had been “really a bit much.”

The meeting was a long time coming. The institutional bonds of international socialism had largely ceased to function after war broke out in 1914, when most parties in the rival states had sided with their own national governments. Only a small minority of antiwar socialists, led by figures like Giacinto Serrati of the Italian Socialist Party and Clara Zetkin of the German Social Democrats, continued to uphold socialist internationalism, meeting in Switzerland in September 1915 to publish the renowned Zimmerwald Manifesto against the war. These connections were deepened at second meeting held in Kienthal in 1916 and a third in Stockholm in September 1917, only weeks before the Russian Revolution would further deepen the divide in international socialism.

After the armistice on November 11, 1918, the “reformists,” as they now openly called themselves, sought to resuscitate the prewar international. Vandervelde, together with Labour’s Arthur Henderson and French diplomat Albert Thomas, invited Europe’s socialist parties to join them on the sidelines of the Paris Peace Conference in January 1919. Ultimately, the meeting had to relocate to Bern, Switzerland, once it became clear that delegates from Germany and Austria would not be allowed into France.

Refounding the old international proved easier said than done: the Belgians refused, citing the presence of the Germans, their enemies in the recent war. The Italians and the Romanians were unwilling to band together with pro-war parties, and the Bolsheviks — now in the process of founding their own Third International — refused to meet with any of them. Nevertheless, those who did make it to Bern that February officially founded a Labour and Socialist International (LSI) as the successor to the Second International. One month later, the Bolsheviks founded the Communist International, or Comintern, as its revolutionary counterpart.

The Comintern expressly sought to unite the revolutionary wing of the international workers’ movement and purge it of reformists and vacillating elements. Through this clean break, the Russian Communists hoped to prepare their international followers for the final battle at a time when — the Comintern’s twenty-one conditions of membership claimed — the class struggle was “entering the phase of civil war.” Their victory, in turn, would aid Soviet Russia’s struggle to withstand a counterrevolution aided and abetted by the major capitalist powers.

Yet many socialists rejected both moderate reformism and Moscow’s maximalist line, neither of which corresponded to their own experiences. Following a series of meetings in Bern and Vienna, they founded the International Working Union of Socialist Parties (IWUSP), also known as the “Two-and-a-Half International” or the “Vienna Union,” in April 1921. Led by Friedrich Adler — son of the founder of the Austrian social democratic party and best known for assassinating the Austrian prime minister in 1916 — the IWUSP united forces like the Independent Social Democrats in Germany (still a party of 340,000, even after the majority left for the Comintern), Britain’s Independent Labour Party, and most socialist parties in the Balkans.

The IWUSP did not reject a revolutionary path to socialism outright but emphasized the need for strategic flexibility from country to country — what had worked in Russia would not necessarily work in Britain or Italy. Nevertheless, they saw the split in the workers’ movement as a tragic setback to be overcome as quickly as possible. “It was not possible to talk of an International,” Adler explained at the meeting in Vienna, “if, on the one hand, as in the Second International, the greater part of the Russian movement is absent, or if, on the other hand, as in the Third International, the majority of the British workers are not represented.” His international would serve as a bridge between the two wings until reunification was possible.

The Road to Berlin

Prospects for such a reunion appeared to improve by the early 1920s. A series of Bolshevik-inspired uprisings had failed in Germany, Hungary, and elsewhere, and the Communist movement’s international position was growing desperate. Though Vladimir Lenin’s followers had won the civil war and held on to power, the conflict cost millions of lives and led to the collapse of the Russian economy.

In Western Europe, socialists were also on the defensive. The initial alliance between the Social Democrats and the ruling class in Germany had meant brutal violence against the country’s revolutionary minority, but also entailed significant concessions to the workers’ movement. By 1921, however, the balance of forces was shifting: emboldened by the defeat of the revolutionary wave and Soviet Russia’s isolation, capitalists went on the offensive, seeking to roll back economic gains and curtail the democratic freedoms granted in the wake of the war.

Against this backdrop, Communist parties cautiously began to seek a degree of rapprochement with other forces, beginning with an open letter published by the Communist Party of Germany in January 1921 calling for joint action between all socialist organizations in defense of workers’ living standards. Though it provoked the ire of many Communists for its seemingly compromising attitude toward the reformists, what Lenin called a “model political step” was endorsed by the Comintern’s Third World Congress in June 1921, and codified in a resolution adopted by its Executive Committee in December.

With tensions between social democracy and the European ruling classes intensifying and the Communists appearing to take a step back from the precipice, the IWUSP saw its chance to bring the rival internationals to the table. The reformists, for their part, were also keen to break out of their postwar isolation, and Labour’s Arthur approached Friedrich Adler in summer 1921 seeking to reconcile the Second and “Two-and-a-Half” internationals on the basis of shared “democratic principles” — i.e., without the Communists.

Adler rejected this proposal out of hand; reuniting with the reformists alone would have contradicted his international’s very purpose. Instead, he issued his own call for a meeting of all three internationals to plan a “first attempt at a general conference” coinciding with the upcoming Genoa Conference, where the great powers planned to resolve outstanding economic and political issues resulting from the war and normalize relations with Germany and Russia. The socialists’ conference was also to be held in Genoa; it was intended to pressure negotiators to relieve the German working class of the burdens imposed by the Versailles Treaty and normalize relations with Russia, a country that, all criticisms aside, European socialists still felt deserved their support in the international arena.

For the sake of unity, Adler proposed that the meeting avoid debating the internationals’ principled differences and instead focus on the state of the European economy and working-class activity. The Comintern, despite its contempt for the “social chauvinists” of the Second International, agreed to attend without preconditions. The reformists, on the other hand, were only willing to commit to the meeting if the agenda also included the “liberation of political prisoners” (i.e., the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries set to go on trial in Moscow for the attempted assassination of Lenin back in 1918) and the status of Georgia, whose independent Menshevik-led government had been overthrown by local Bolsheviks backed by the Red Army in early 1921.

Rendezvous in the Reichstag

All three sides agreed to send ten-person delegations to the meeting, picked from their respective executives. The reformists were led by Labour’s Tom Shaw along with Vandervelde and Ramsay MacDonald, an antiwar socialist and future infamous renegade. “Two-and-a-Half” was represented by Adler, as well as other luminaries like France’s Jean Longuet (Karl Marx’s grandson) and Germany’s Arthur Crispien. The Communists’ delegation was unspectacular by comparison: of its ten delegates, only Zetkin, Radek, and Bukharin enjoyed international stature. Alongside them spoke Serrati for the Italian Socialists, whom Adler’s original plan entrusted with hosting the upcoming Genoa summit.

Adler opened proceedings by acknowledging that “the present difficulties amongst the proletariat make a common organization impossible,” but insisted that “the position of the world proletariat is such that it is imperative, in spite of all differences which may exist, to make an attempt to unite its strength for certain concrete purposes and actions.” Economically, the “terrible conditions of misery caused by depreciation of currency and economic need on the one hand, and increased unemployment in the lands with a high currency on the other hand” could only be opposed by united action, while politically, the upcoming Genoa Conference, organized by the “international of capitalist imperialism,” heightened the need for a “united band of proletarian parties” to oppose further division of the world along imperialist lines.

He framed the divide between the internationals not as a fundamental difference but one of “historical perspective.” Reformists saw the transition to socialism as lying much further in the future and focused their activity on immediate economic concerns, while revolutionaries sought to lay the groundwork for socialism today. “But, however different our perspective of tomorrow may be,” he rejoined, “we can still say that although we who meet here as comrades are divided as to whether the fight is to be for today or tomorrow, yet we have this in common, that we all want to fight.” He went on to propose one simple condition for further action: “All proletarian parties will be admitted who stand on the ground of the class struggle, whose goal is to overthrow capitalism and who recognize the necessity for common international action on the part of the proletariat for the attainment of this goal.”

This straightforward proposal was greeted by Zetkin, speaking for the Comintern. She began by affirming the need to “unite for a defensive struggle against the offensive of world capital” and welcoming Adler’s initiative as a “means for the uniting of the coming labour struggles.” Yet she inserted an important caveat, characteristic of the Communists’ alliance policy at the time: these shared struggles would only be necessary until the working class as a whole “learned . . . that capitalism can only be overcome when the great majority of the proletariat seizes power in revolutionary battle and establishes the dictatorship of the working people.”

Zetkin and the other Communists had no doubt that they would eventually consolidate their hegemony over the workers’ movement and establish dictatorships of the proletariat around the world. The other socialist parties would either see the error of their ways and fall in line behind them or, if necessary, face repression, like the Mensheviks and Socialist Revolutionaries whose plight so stirred the Second International reformists.

The fundamental distrust caused by the Communists’ insistence that they alone would lead the proletariat to victory proved to be the biggest sticking point at the negotiations. Vandervelde and his comrades were “filled with suspicions and apprehensions” by the Comintern’s official proclamations, specifically the December 1921 resolution on the united front, a “strange mixture of ingenuousness and Machiavellianism” that appealed for unity with the reformists even as “no secret is made of the intention to stifle us and poison us after embracing us.” Ramsay MacDonald pointedly asked the Communist delegates, “We come here anxious to promote cooperation, but we come here to ask you as man to man: Is that why you are here?”

Despite his professed desire for unity, Radek had no patience for the reformists’ concerns, snidely remarking that “the strength of Vandervelde’s voice carried us back for a moment to that time when we believed in the warmth of his voice, and we forgot for the moment that this voice had been drowned in the roar of the cannon.” As far as Vandervelde’s pleas for “a minimum of confidence, just a little,” were concerned, he retorted, “Confidence in what? In the war?”

The proceedings of the meeting reveal a movement whose divisions had long congealed into deep distrust and resentment. The two sides exchanged polemical barbs and refused to give any substantive ground, while Adler and his men desperately tried to broker a truce. Everyone agreed on the need for unity, but everyone, especially the Communists, wanted that unity on their own terms.

A sole voice of reason emerged in the figure of Giacinto Serrati, whose party the Communists had split in two the previous year. Serrati chided both sides for moralizing and asked whether delegates “were here to set ourselves up as judges one of another, or to accomplish a practical piece of work.” “We have all committed many errors,” he continued, but perhaps “the judges” — i.e., the reformists — “have committed more errors than the accused, because the judges have committed them in alliance with our enemies. The accused committed errors for the sake of the revolution and not of the bourgeoisie.”

Serrati, the only representative whose party belonged to none of the three internationals, urged all attendees to look beyond the past and subordinate short-term, national priorities to the ultimate goal of international socialism. He viewed the recent splits as caused not by fundamental differences so much as different conditions of struggle — it was not unthinkable that they would be resolved in the years to come if the movement’s leaders remained committed to unity. Moreover, all of the criticisms raised by the reformists — the repression of the Mensheviks, the Soviet invasion of Georgia, and Communist subversion of social democratic organizations — would only worsen should the internationals grow further apart.

Ultimately, he concluded, the enemies of social democracy and communism were the same: “Capitalism is trying to invade Russia; and at the same time, climbing upon your shoulders, Social Democratic comrades.” A unity agreement, no matter how provisional, would at least keep alive the prospect of “the salvation of the international proletariat.” Failure to reach an agreement, on the other hand, “may mean a victory for capitalist imperialism over the workers’ international, for who knows how long.”

“We Have Paid Too Much”

Negotiations dragged on for the next four days, with Adler remarking that “again and again our attempts were nearly wrecked.” Despite Serrati’s appeals to the greater good, and the repeated insistence by all parties involved that a united front against reaction was necessary, the meeting failed to schedule a conference in Genoa.

Instead, the meeting agreed to establish an “Organization Committee of the Nine,” consisting of three representatives from each international, and continue deliberations on the possibility of a future international conference. It would also examine the fate of Georgia, with all sides given ample opportunity to present evidence. The Bolsheviks, for their part, promised that none of the Social Revolutionaries on trial would be given death sentences. All parties involved were called on to organize demonstrations on May Day signaling the newfound spirit of unity.

Shortly after Adler announced the common declaration, however, the Committee of the Nine began to unravel. Just days after the meeting, Lenin chided Zetkin and Radek for their concessions, telling them they “paid too much,” and denounced the other two internationals as “blackmailers” working “for the benefit of the bourgeoisie.” Radek issued a report several days later accusing the Second International of sabotaging the united front, and days before the Committee of Nine was scheduled to meet in Berlin on May 23, Comintern leader Grigory Zinoviev published an article predicting its imminent collapse.

He wasn’t wrong. The meeting on May 23 quickly devolved into recriminations on both sides, with the Second and “Two-and-a-Half” Internationals complaining that the Bolsheviks had ratcheted up repression of domestic reformists, while May Day demonstrations in Moscow featured slogans like “Death to the bourgeoisie and the Social Democrats!” Their suspicions concerning the duplicitous nature of the united front tactic appeared to be confirmed. The Communists, under instructions from Moscow, issued an ultimatum that the meeting either agree to convene a world congress of the proletariat immediately or their delegates would walk out. The unity talks were history. The Communists would continue to pursue a united front, they insisted, but only “from below,” without the leaderships of rival parties.

Adler and the IWUSP, exasperated with the Communists, quickly entered into unity talks with the LSI in London, and, by 1923, the Second International had been more or less reconstituted, shorn of its revolutionary minority. The Communists attempted one last uprising in Germany in 1923, but in truth had already been moving toward diplomatic acceptance on the international stage since 1921. Even the unity talks, Radek claimed in retrospect, were “nothing but an attempt to utilize the international proletariat during the Genoa Conference for the support of Soviet diplomacy.” Instead, Russia normalized its relations with Germany by signing the Treaty of Rapallo on April 16, 1922, undermining the Genoa Conference more effectively than any socialist meeting could have.

The dissolution of the Committee of the Nine marked the end of international socialism as a movement and a common goal. Reformists turned to building welfare states within their own national borders, while Communists devoted themselves to Joseph Stalin’s vision of “socialism in one country” within the Soviet Union. Though it felt like a betrayal to many Communists at the time, the devastation of the civil war combined with the Bolsheviks’ international isolation left them with little other choice. That there would be no space for reformists or other dissenting socialist currents was by then a foregone conclusion.

In the West, the rise of fascism fueled further splits among socialists, with both the Italian and German movements fragmenting even further before being outlawed entirely. Only the Nazi victory in Germany provided a common enemy strong enough to reunite them, albeit only temporarily.