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When the Communist International Is Your Boss

Brigitte Studer
Loren Balhorn

Throughout history, it’s been hard for agitators and troublemakers to hold down a good job. In the interwar decades, tens of thousands of them were hired by the Communist International — an employer with long hours, difficult bosses, and a lot of opportunities for travel.

Delegates at the Second World Congress of the Communist International, Petrograd, 1920. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Marcel Bois

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 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.


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, stenotypists, 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?

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 formalized 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, we 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 lifeworld. That’s difficult for anyone.

MB

You tell the history of the Comintern as a history of the intersecting lives of roughly two dozen individuals, all having what you call a “transnational biography.” The Berlin media entrepreneur Willi Münzenberg is one such person, as is the Italian photographer Tina Modotti or the Indian Communist Manabendra Nath Roy. How did you decide whom to focus on?

BS

My idea was actually to write the history of the Comintern based on three revolutions of the interwar period: the miserable failure that was the German Revolution in 1923, the Chinese Revolution in 1927, and the Spanish Revolution in 1936. Accordingly, I looked for protagonists who were active in these places during these three moments. As it turned out, this permanence of activism was rare — only a few high-profile individuals were truly active on the front lines throughout the Comintern period.

So I added more activists to the sample. They had to be people about whom I could track down sources and scholarly literature, preferably in a language I spoke. The Chinese side in my book is clearly told from the Westerners’ point of view, not that of the Chinese Communists, simply because I can’t read their sources.

Beyond that, I looked for people who reflected the diversity of the early Comintern. And last but not least, it was important to me that my protagonists ran into each other again and again. That way, they could appear in several places in the book.

Even I was surprised by the number of spaces in which life paths crossed. The Berlin home of the German sexologist Magnus Hirschfeld, for example, was one such place. Willi Münzenberg and Babette Gross lived there temporarily, while many other prominent Communists came and went, such as Heinz Neumann, Georgi Dimitrov, and Manabendra Nath Roy. They all knew each other and some of them even fell in love with each other. I found that interesting.

MB

Love between Communists? What can you tell us about their relationships?

BS

They cultivated quite free lifestyles to some extent, which is something we don’t really associate with communism so much as with the feminism of the new social movements in the 1970s. I don’t just mean that the women were sexually freer, but also that they lived in rather unusual relationships. The Soviet secret agent Ruth Werner, for example, had children from three different men, two of whom were temporarily cared for by her former husband. In that sense, very modern ways of living were already being practiced.

This early phase of the Comintern is relevant for the wider history of the twentieth century insofar as I believe that cultural models were tried out here that were later taken up again — not directly, of course, but they had an impact.

MB

Let’s take a step back in time. Why did the Comintern emerge in the first place?

BS

The Communist International was founded shortly after the end of World War I — in other words, at a time of great social upheaval, unrest, and conflict. Millions had died in that war, and many more were plunged into poverty. Accordingly, the rejection of war was very strong: many people held the regimes that caused the war responsible for the conditions that now prevailed. This led to a radicalization of large parts of the population in Central Europe, especially the workers’ movement — also inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Strong social movements emerged, and the monarchy was overthrown in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Here the Bolsheviks saw a window of opportunity to consolidate their own regime — or, to put it less in terms of power and geopolitics, to transform social conditions through a worldwide proletarian revolution. This political moment was behind the founding of the Comintern.

MB

What role did the collapse of the Socialist International play?

BS

It was central. The Bolsheviks saw which way the wind was blowing and tried to build a new internationalism at the right moment, as the Socialist International had broken up during the war after its member parties opted for national rather than international solidarity.

This was precisely the vacuum that the Comintern’s Second World Congress in Moscow in 1920, which I regard as its real founding congress, hurled itself into. Delegates from almost all over the world came together, sometimes with great difficulty, and were able to participate in this new internationalism. We shouldn’t underestimate this moment — the proclamation itself did not create an international, but rather the collective experience in Moscow, the transnational meeting point.

MB

What can you say about the composition of the Congress?

BS

The great diversity of the participants is striking. The spectrum ranged from the small, unknown Hilde Kramer to Lenin and Trotsky — in other words, from stenographers and interpreters to renowned leading personalities of the international workers’ movement.

A number of women also took part in the Congress, something that researchers have devoted little attention to thus far. They were a minority, about 10 percent of the delegates according to the minutes, but those figures don’t reflect the whole reality. After all, someone like Kramer, who attended but wasn’t a delegate, wasn’t included in the statistics.

MB

Overall, your research sample includes a disproportionate number of women. Why is gender an important perspective when studying the history of the Communist International?

BS

We know the names of a total of thirty thousand Comintern employees. Of these, about one-sixth were women, or 16 percent. I find this relevant, first of all, as an indication that Communism also carried within it a hope for gender equality. Today we would perhaps use the term “feminism,” even if the Communists of that era did not call themselves feminists. That word was reserved for the so-called “bourgeois” women’s movement.

I wanted to portray a lot of women because they tend to be underrepresented in studies of the Comintern. Women often do not appear in primary sources and therefore go unnoticed in historical scholarship. I call this “historiographical mimicry”: historians reproduce the blindness of their sources, doubling it, so to speak. I wanted to correct and compensate for that.

Furthermore, I wanted to show that if you want to study the Comintern as an apparatus, as a global organization, you can’t just focus on the secretaries in the Executive Committee. You have to take into account the diversity of functions that existed within it, and that quite a lot of different tasks had to be dealt with. Women played a major role here. In this functional hierarchy based on a division of labor, they were mostly given so-called technical tasks — i.e., subordinate functions that were nevertheless indispensable for the functioning of the whole.

MB

In September 1920, the Congress of the Peoples of the East was held in Baku, with 1,900 delegates from Asia and Europe. You write that its impact should not be underestimated, as “it laid the foundation for the integration of new groups into the struggle of the workers’ movement. Through the congress, the Comintern, hitherto focused on the category of class, opened up to the categories of gender and ‘race’ and their interactions.” So, did the Comintern advocate intersectionality theory before it existed?

BS

[laughs] Well, certainly not explicitly. I would also say that the Comintern leadership had a lot of difficulty bringing the different categories of discrimination together. For them, class always remained the central category, but they saw that oppression based on gender or ethnicity also played a role and wanted to integrate the social groups affected by it.

The Baku Congress is interesting because there was almost a kind of affirmative action: women were deliberately elected to the Congress Executive, in some cases even on a parity basis, despite actually being a very small minority. In addition, issues of gender equality were granted quite a lot of importance. This approach is remarkable, especially when we take into account the environment in which the congress took place — a part of the world with an Islamic, highly patriarchal, and conservative culture.

Whether this approach was successful is another question. In any case, the Bolsheviks set things in motion here. It was a moment to bring together Western and Eastern liberation movements — albeit in a voluntaristic act.

MB

A lot of space in your book is devoted to the topics of anti-imperialism and corresponding trans-colonial networks. What role did they play for Communist policy in the interwar period?

BS

Anti-imperialism was theoretically an important element of the Bolsheviks’ political conception and theory, but it remained fairly abstract — mainly because the links between anti-colonial actors and the Comintern’s centers of gravity, the places where it had a strong presence, were almost nonexistent. There were anti-colonial activists in France who had no contact with Communists for a long time. It was desired in theory, but most Communist parties had other priorities. Mediators were needed between the Comintern’s political ambitions and resolutions and political practice.

One of these mediators was Willi Münzenberg, who was very involved and also achieved a lot. He succeeded in establishing globe-spanning networks. But he always had to justify his initiatives and get permission — and was often confronted with an apparatus that said, “No, we aren’t doing that right now.”

In part, fears of making the wrong political decision played a role here. But sometimes there were also much more banal questions behind it, like how much it might cost. Sometimes there was simply a lack of human resources, or the apparatus chose to deploy them elsewhere. I find this connection between ideals and very pragmatic, down-to-earth considerations interesting.

MB

Historians have studied the Stalinization of the Communist movement in the 1920s — the erosion of internal democracy, bureaucratic ossification, and also its growing dependence on Moscow — for a long time. Can you say what effect this process had on the activists whose lives you followed?

BS

Well, in terms of how things ended, a large number of those who fled to the Soviet Union and then lived there died as a result of the Stalinist terror. That is undoubtedly the most tragic part.

But even before that, their work was made more difficult. For example, discussions within the Comintern became more limited as time went on. Not all positions were acceptable anymore, so that the protagonists always had to feel their way forward in order to figure out what could still be said or what options they could propose.

Likewise, the increasingly rigid hierarchy influenced their possibilities for action. You can see this, for example, with M. N. Roy. He was sent to China even though he would’ve preferred to deal with India, but Stalin didn’t grant him permission.

The contrast to the early 1920s is striking. The twenty-one Conditions of Admission to the Communist International, for example, were tightened by the non-Russian participants at the Second World Congress. In any case, the Bolsheviks had to make some compromises here. By the beginning of the 1930s, this was no longer necessary at all. Everyone followed the directives from Moscow — if they didn’t, their funding was cut off.

End Mark

About the Author

Brigitte Studer is a professor of Swiss and contemporary history at the University of Bern, Switzerland. Her recent publications include Reisende der Weltrevolution: Eine Globalgeschichte der Kommunistischen Internationale (Suhrkamp, 2020) and The Transnational World of the Cominternians (Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

About the Interviewer

Marcel Bois is a historian and co-editor of Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky. Architektur. Politik. Geschlecht. Neue Perspektiven auf Leben und Werk.

About the Translator

Loren Balhorn is a contributing editor at Jacobin and coeditor, together with Bhaskar Sunkara, of Jacobin: Die Anthologie (Suhrkamp, 2018).

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