Transnational Leftism: A Symposium on the Comintern and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions

Oleksa Drachewych

During the interwar period, many flocked to the left, inspired by the initial success of the Bolshevik Revolution. The Bolsheviks, meanwhile, hoped to spread revolution from Russia to Europe in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. To help in this aim, the Bolsheviks, along with other socialists who agreed with their revolutionary aims, founded the Third International, also known as the Communist International or Comintern. The Comintern sought to provide the revolutionary leadership necessary to spread communism throughout the world. When revolution in Europe did not occur, communism turned its attention to the colonial world. Some communists saw this as an attempt to undermine the strength of the British Empire, hoping to bring down the most powerful, at the time, imperial power. Many, including Vladimir Lenin, however saw the colonial world as a legitimate partner, uniting colonized peoples and the international proletariat as victims of capitalist oppression. Good communists were required to make combating imperialism an important part of their efforts.

Through the Comintern, and building on the theories and tactics recommended by prominent socialists, and especially Bolshevik leaders, international communism created the foundation for some of the more well-known movements communists supported during the Cold War era. The Soviet Union’s support for nationalist regimes in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s, communism’s support for the anti-apartheid movement, and the left’s support for civil rights during the 1960s had their roots in international communism from the interwar period. In Canada specifically, the left’s attempts to support French Canadian nationalism especially, and the rights of Indigenous peoples to a lesser extent, was influenced by some of the CPC’s platforms of the 1920s and 1930s.[1]

The history of international communism and what it termed the National and Colonial Questions is understudied. In Comintern historiography, research published before the fall of the Soviet Union, and before the Comintern Archives became more easily available to researchers, dominate the field and still make up the majority of seminal works on this specific subtopic.[2] Historians of national Communist Parties have done some significant work, but these histories remain isolated subfields, with many scholars focusing, and reasonably so, on re-evaluating and improving the research done on these parties. Silvio Pons, writing in his recent monograph The Global Revolution, argues that “[t]he tendency to see the origins of the communist parties in their respective national societies has the defect of losing the constituent link established between the revolutionary state and the communist movement.” He continues by stressing a need to focus on transnational links and interaction between national communist parties and the Comintern apparatus. [3]

Transnational studies have begun to explore topics that often were on the periphery of the history of international communism during the interwar period. These histories have done important work in exploring the role of individual communists, taking the field away from the top-down organizational histories that focused on the roles of Bolshevik and Comintern leaders. Many of these individual communists genuinely believed in communism and saw the ideology as one that meshed with their hopes for the world. These studies have shown that even when the horrors of the Great Terror became known amongst communists and tactical shifts, such as the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which many communists struggled to square away with the anti-fascism that the Comintern and international communism had promoted, many still believed in communism itself, even if they may have drifted from their support for the Soviet Union or the Comintern.[4]

Furthermore, by turning one’s focus to the role of individual communists and looking at how these communists were able to influence tactical shifts and add to the theoretical underpinning of some of the movements communism supported, historians have challenged the concept that the Comintern was a monolith where the Bolsheviks led and other communists simply followed. There are many examples of individual communists managing to take the lead in important tactical shifts or to push forward progressive tactics, trying to make communism a legitimate option on issues such as racial equality, anti-imperialism and colonial liberation.. Scholars of American communism have shown how African American communists were pivotal in many of the important discussions on communism and what it termed the “Negro Question,” the attempt to resolve racial inequality of blacks. Scholars of specific suborganizations have shown how the leaders of those organizations, typically interested communists who were passionate about a given cause, such as Willi Munzenburg and the League Against Imperialism, or James Ford and George Padmore and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers, were important in making these front organizations effective in their promotion of anti-imperialism and racial equality or in their organization of the colonial world or the black Atlantic. The Comintern still made the final decision about whether these organizations would enjoy support, but the fact that individuals could have such an important role is something recent research has stressed.[5]

In Canada, the national question in the Communist Party of Canada (CPC) has revolved around two particular topics: foreign workers and French Canada. For much of the 1920s, immigrants made up the overwhelming number of the party’s membership. In particular, Ukrainian and Finnish workers flocked to the CPC and backed the party’s efforts. The CPC established autonomous language groups that made these individual ethnicities powerful blocs within the party. Later, Jewish, Chinese and Japanese workers became notable groups the party courted for support. The Comintern meanwhile urged the CPC to increase its “native-born,” that is English or French Canadian, membership. French Canada was always a problem for the CPC as it struggled to gain a foothold in the region. It would not be until the 1930s that the party was able to begin properly agitating among French Canadian workers and bring some over to its side. Historians have started to reconsider both topics more prominently in the history of the Canadian left.[6] Indigenous peoples were generally ignored in by the CPC during the interwar period.[7]

Trans Left WorkshopThe central aim of our Transnational Leftism Workshop is to bring about a sober re-evaluation of the Communist International and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions. It seeks to build on the advantages transnational and comparative studies have had in providing new insights to the history of international communism and its attempts to respond to imperialism, nationality, and racial inequality. To what extent did Moscow dictate international communism as a movement and to what extent did individual parties or people have agency to develop their own responses to local conditions? Were individual parties or communists able to revise Comintern tactics to local conditions or was a “Comintern line” expected to be rigidly followed? How did communists grapple with their own national identity within the larger movement of international communism or in specific local contexts? How did transnational networks and the exchange of ideas, not just from Moscow to a given region, but between regions lead to unique applications of communist ideas to respond to a certain challenge? Finally, what were some of the ramifications of these ideas and tactics, both positive and negative, in the history of the left and of nationality, race or imperialism? All of these questions we hope to discuss in some form during the workshop.

The workshop begins on Thursday, September 21 with panels beginning at 10 a.m.  At 4 pm at CIBC Hall at McMaster University, we are pleased to host Stephen A. Smith from All Souls College at Oxford University as our keynote address. He will present “The Global Meanings of the Russian Revolution, 1917-1927,” a particularly timely presentation given the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution this fall.

Panels include scholars from Canada and from around the world, including the United States, Great Britain, Germany, Australia, and Nigeria. Papers presented will examine the Communist International, and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions in a variety of ways; panels have been broken down thematically and include focus on national identity and communism, transnational networks, comparative history, biographical and microhistorical reviews of specific figures or events and their greater effects, and connections between international communism and anti-colonialism generally. All panels are open to the public and take place on Thursday, September 21 and Friday, September 22 in L.R. Wilson Hall Room 2001. You can view the workshop schedule here.

All are welcome to attend and join the conversation!


Oleksa Drachewych recently defended his dissertation in history, entitled “The Comintern and the Communist Parties of South Africa, Canada, and Australia on Questions of Imperialism, Nationality and Race, 1919-1943,” at McMaster University. He is one of the co-organizers and co-chairs of Transnational Leftism. He is currently working on converting his dissertation into a book and has reviewed books on international communism and Russian foreign policy for Canadian Slavonic Papers, Europe-Asia Studies and other journals.


[1] Ian McKay, Rebels, Reds, Radicals: Rethinking Canada’s Left History (Toronto: Between the Lines, 2005), 40-41.

[2] E.H. Carr’s series on the Bolshevik Revolution remains one of the most complete reviews of the Comintern and the National and Colonial Questions. Stephen White wrote a series of important articles on the Comintern under Lenin and its attention on these issues. Roger Kanet’s article represents one of the earliest surveys of the Comintern and “the Negro Question.” Edward Hallett Carr, The Bolshevik Revolution: 1919-1923: Volume 3 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1966); Edward Hallett Carr, The Interregnum: 1923-1924 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1969); Edward Hallett Carr, Socialism in One Country: 1924-1926 (London: MacMillan & Co. Ltd, 1964); E. H. Carr, Twilight of the Comintern: 1930-1935 (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982);  Stephen White, “Communism and the East: The Baku Congress, 1920,” Slavic Review 33, no. 3 (Sep., 1974): 492-514; Stephen White, “Colonial Revolution and the Communist International, 1919-1924,” Science & Society 40, no. 2 (Summer, 1976): 173-193; Stephen White, “Soviet Russia and the Asian Revolution, 1917-1924,” Review of International Studies 10, no. 3 (Jul., 1984): 219-232; Roger E. Kanet, “The Comintern and the ‘Negro Question’: Communist Policy in the United States and Africa, 1921-1941,” Survey XIX, 4 (1973): 86-122. Since the opening of the Comintern archives, the National and Colonial Question is dealt with generally and as part of document collections or in some edited collections. For example, John Riddell ed., Workers of the World and Oppressed Peoples, Unite!: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, vol. 1 (New York: Pathfinder Press, 2013); John Riddell, ed., To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015); John Riddell ed., Toward the United Front: Proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 (Leiden: Brill, 2012); John Callaghan, “Storm Over Asia: Comintern Colonial Policy in the Third Period,” in Matthew Worley, ed., In Search of Revolution: International Communist Parties in the Third Period (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2004), 18-37.

[3] Silvio Pons, The Global Revolution: A History of International Communism, 1917-1991, trans. Allan Cameron (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), xiii-xiv.

[4] The work of Brigitte Studer and Lisa Kirschenbaum has focused on the role of the individual communists in specific transnational contexts, the Comintern bureaucracy and in the Spanish Civil War respectively. Brigitte Studer, The Transnational World of the Cominternians, trans. Dafydd Rees Roberts (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015); Lisa A. Kirschenbaum, International Communism and the Spanish Civil War: Solidarity and Suspicion (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

[5] For some examples, see Jacob Zumoff, The Communist International and US Communism 1919-1929 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015); Hakim Adi, Pan-Africanism and Communism: The Communist International, Africa and the Diaspora, 1919-1939 (Trenton: Africa World Press, 2013); Holger Weiss, Framing a Radical African Atlantic: African American Agency, West African Intellectuals, and the International Trade Union Committee of Negro Workers (Leiden: Brill, 2014);  Fredrik Petersson, Willi Munzenberg, the League Against Imperialism, and the Comintern, 1925-1933 (New York: Edward Mellen Press, 2014).

[6] For some examples, see Michel Beaulieu, Labour at the Lakehead: Ethnicity, Socialism, and Politics, 1900-35 (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2011); Joan Sangster, “‘Robitnytsia,’ Ukrainian Communists, and the ‘Porcupinism’ Debate: Reassessing Ethnicity, Gender, and Class in Early Canadian Communism, 1922-1930.” Labour/Le Travail 56, (Fall, 2005): 51-89; Christine Elie, “The City and the Reds: Leftism, the Civic Politics of Order, and a Contested Modernity in Montreal, 1929-1947” (PhD diss., Queen’s University, 2015);

[7] This is a topic I discussed in my previous blog post for Beyond Borders: The New Canadian History entitled “‘The most exploited section of the working class’: The Canadian Communist Party, International Communism, Nationality, and Racial Equality in the Interwar Period


Cover Image: Isaak Brodsky, The Second Congress of the Comintern, 1924-5. Wikimedia Commons.

2 thoughts on “Transnational Leftism: A Symposium on the Comintern and the National, Colonial and Racial Questions

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s