History of communist practice

Recalling the Comintern

[Brigitte Studer is one of the most accomplished historians of socialism in the German-speaking world. Her latest book, Reisende der Weltrevolution: Eine Globalgeschichte der Kommunistischen Internationale—appearing in German last year and now slated to be published in English by Verso Books—paints a detailed portrait of a group of transnational Communists from 1920 onward. Serving as officials and agents of the Communist International, or Comintern, from Moscow to Berlin and Tashkent to Wuhan, these dedicated Communists did everything in their power to push the world revolution forward.

A century later, what remains of their struggle? And why is it worth studying the Comintern in a world that has changed so radically since the communist movement’s heyday? Marcel Bois spoke with Brigitte Studer about the hopes and disappointments of these militants who found in the Comintern a force that gave them meaning in life—and a job. Excerpts:]

MB : Your new book, Reisende der Weltrevolution, examines the Communist International in the 1920s and 1930s as a workplace. Was the Comintern a good employer? Was it lucrative to be a professional revolutionary?

BS : No, it certainly wasn’t lucrative in the sense of earning a high income, let alone building up significant savings. What made working in the Comintern apparatus attractive was that it offered the prospect of full-time political activism coupled with a degree of financial security.

It isn’t easy to find sources on this aspect, but the documents we do have suggest that in principle—at least until the mid-1930s—Comintern functionaries earned the same salary as a skilled worker. They also make clear that everything was regulated very precisely, such as the level of out-of-pocket expenses or under what conditions staff were permitted to go on business trips. In that sense, the Comintern was already a quite modern employer.

MB : What did a Comintern functionary’s job look like?

BS : The Comintern rapidly grew into a complex apparatus with multiple branches. There were numerous departments in Moscow, including a large translation department. Work was divided into political and technical tasks—the former were usually assigned to men, the latter to women, though there were exceptions.

What is striking is how quickly people’s roles in the apparatus changed depending on where labor was needed at any given time. There were emissaries who took on supervisory tasks as well as more technical instructors. Women were often code readers, couriers, steno-typists, and secretaries, but they also worked as editors or spies. Most of them were expected to file countless reports, even on foreign missions.

MB : We know from the work of other historians that it was very difficult for people who worked for the Communist Party of Germany in the 1920s to find jobs on the regular labor market afterward. Was this also the case in other countries?

BS : Yes, definitely. These people were stigmatized. They were branded as communists—as political extremists, so to speak—and thus were not exactly popular with employers.

On top of that, working for the Comintern entailed quite unique rules and working conditions that alienated its functionaries from normal middle-class life. Even though they usually worked very, very hard, they were not subject to a strict schedule—unlike, say, factory workers. Agents on foreign missions, for example, had no regular working hours. They were much freer in this regard, at least in terms of how they structured their day-to-day lives—ideologically, of course, that was not the case.

To some extent, working for the Comintern resembled the precariousness and uncertainty of an artist’s life: you were in one place today and another place tomorrow. One day work started early in the morning, other days meetings were in the evenings. You had to make decisions and work with many different people. In that sense, the job demanded a lot of skills. At the same time, depending on the context, it also left room for a degree of autonomy.

MB : From what you’ve told us so far, it sounds like you take a very different approach to studying the Comintern than previous studies have.

BS : That’s true. Most histories of the Comintern mainly deal with political resolutions, meetings, and structures. These authors sought to figure out how the organization was structured or how many members it had. That is undoubtedly important and necessary work, but I wanted to show how this specific historical form of political activism took shape. How was it experienced by this group of people?

They belonged to a community and encountered a lot of solidarity there, but also conflicts and jealousy—as is the case in any closed milieu.

I wanted to know not only what these people’s convictions were but also how they tried to translate them into action—and in many changing locations at that. How did they cope with the political directives and action patterns they were expected to apply in a foreign setting? In that sense, my book is a history of Communist practices.

MB : What finding surprised you the most?

BS : The high degree of improvisation. Much of what we perceive as very orderly and structured in retrospect was in fact conducted quite experimentally by those involved at the time. The protagonists had to approach their activity and ask themselves: What is this about and how can I act here?

Moreover, they had to continuously negotiate how a political resolution could be put into practice—with their partners, with their environment, and with other Comintern staff. There were no role models and there was no formalised training, except for perhaps the International Lenin School in Moscow later on, but that wasn’t founded until 1926. Initially, individual learning processes within a collective were the order of the day.

MB : Your book’s perspective is strongly centered on the actors themselves. What did it mean to be a Communist in the 1920s?

BS : It depends on the country in which a person was active. My research looks at the international activists of the Comintern, not at functionaries of individual national parties. For these Comintern activists, their activity entailed a kind of alienation from their former homeland. They had to define themselves as internationalists in practice and act accordingly.

At the same time, the job also meant being part of a community. This goes a long way in explaining why many remained Communists despite all the difficulties and adversities they faced. They belonged to a community and encountered a lot of solidarity there, but also conflicts and jealousy—as is the case in any closed milieu. This sense of belonging gave their lives meaning.

For some, the job also granted them a professional status they otherwise might not have obtained. Working for the Comintern was quite different from working in a factory. Here they could rise, gain recognition, and, as Pierre Bourdieu would say, accumulate political capital. Meanwhile, all of the people involved brought activist capital with them. Nobody who joined the Comintern apparatus was a political novice. They already had experience in political conflicts, strikes, or revolutions like the Bavarian Soviet Republic in Munich.

MB : Building on that, could we say that intellectuals who had career prospects beyond the Comintern were more likely to break with the apparatus than people whose only other option was going back to the factory?

BS : Not necessarily. After all, the job often represented a profound personal commitment. Accordingly, for many of these people, the break with Communism represented a break with themselves. It was experienced as a betrayal of their ideals—tantamount to personal failure. The many years of commitment and the many sacrifices would have been in vain.

In this respect, it was not necessarily easier for intellectuals to break with the Comintern, especially since they were also politically branded and would have trouble finding their professional footing elsewhere. It was perhaps easier for a musician than for a writer.

Basically, one can say that this form of activism encompassed an individual’s entire self. It was not some political activity like, for example, membership in the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is today. If you resign, life goes on. But by leaving the Comintern, a person lost not only their sense of meaning in life but their entire life world. That’s difficult for anyone.

[Translation from German by Loren Barlhorn]

Back to Home Page

Vol. 54, No. 23, Dec 5 - 11, 2021