Tuesday, October 5, 2021

The Communist International, A Critical Analysis – Part I

By way of an introduction…

The soviet seizure of power under Bolshevik leadership, in October 1917, surprised many socialists outside of Russia, particularly in Western Europe where the tendency was to anticipate socialist victory through the election of a socialist majority and parliamentary adoption of the kind of program outlined by the prominent Marxist intellectual Karl Kautsky in The Road to Power.

A numerical minority in Soviet Russia – as confirmed in the Constituent Assembly elections immediately after the soviet victory – the Bolsheviks thought that under the newly-established “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the capitalists being excluded from any legal possibility of retaking control of government) they could, over time, win majority support among the peasantry, about 80% of the country’s population, through eliminating the landlord class and providing government support to the new peasant economy while strengthening the working class’s leading role through industrialization and state planning.

The Bolsheviks, however, were convinced that their regime could endure only if socialist revolution soon ensued in the more developed countries of Western Europe. Their highest hopes centered on Germany, where many workers were seeking to recover from their country’s defeat in a war supported by the leaders of their mass Social Democratic party. A socialist victory in Germany would provide needed assistance to the new soviet regime in Russia. And it was imminent, they thought.

The Bolsheviks were therefore quick to initiate the formation of a new global revolutionary formation, the Communist International, or Comintern, aimed at replacing the reformist and pro-imperialist Socialist International. The Comintern’s debates and decisions in the early years, as documented in the excellent volumes translated and edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber,[1] shaped the contours of revolutionary Marxist politics throughout the 20th century and indeed since, although as an organization the Comintern failed to supplant Social Democracy and fell victim to authoritarian Stalinist monolithism early in its history.

Socialists today still debate the path to governmental power and the process of transition to an alternative socialist system, a task made even more urgent in conditions of impending climate catastrophe under capitalist rule. They can learn much from the experience of the Communist International.

A half-century ago, Fernando Claudín critically assessed the record of the Comintern in his two-volume work The Communist Movement.[2] A long-time leader of the Spanish Communist party (PCE), Claudín had broken with other party leaders in the 1960s over conflicting perspectives for the country when fascist dictator Francisco Franco died. While they called for a “democratic revolution” initially limited to abolishing semi-feudal and other backward institutions, Claudín and his supporters thought conditions were ripening to mount a broad opposition platform oriented toward socialist revolution in the Spanish state. Claudín was expelled from the PCE in 1964. He later evolved toward the Social-Democratic PSOE in the post-Franco transition, and died in 1990.

His major work, authored in the early 1970s, was critical, inter alia, of the early Comintern’s failure to appreciate the strength of electoralist and parliamentary illusions of workers under late capitalism based on their democratic conquests such as the achievement of universal suffrage. In my opinion his analysis offers many insights into the challenges facing the early Communists and the strategy and tactics they adopted while he faults them nevertheless for often failing to question some fundamental assumptions.

The following is the first of four extracts I have scanned from Chapter 2 of his book, entitled “The Crisis of Theory.” The book is long out-of-print, although a few copies may be obtained from antiquarian book outlets. The other extracts will follow soon. I have omitted many of Claudín’s often lengthy endnotes and added a few of my own, which I have initialed.

- Richard Fidler


[1] See the multivolume series edited by Riddell in the collection The Communist International in Lenin’s Time (Pathfinder Press), followed by the proceedings of the Third and Fourth Comintern congresses and related plenary sessions, available from Haymarket Books.

[2] Subtitled From Comintern to Cominform (Monthly Review Press, 1975). Part One, “The Crisis of the Communist International,” was translated by Brian Pearce. Part Two, “The Zenith of Stalinism,” was translated by Francis MacDonagh.

* * *

THE CRISIS OF THEORY

No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the womb of the old society.

MARX

LENIN’S THEORETICAL SCHEMA

For Lenin, as for Marx and Engels, the socialist revolution was essentially a world revolution, even if it was not possible for the working class to take power simultaneously in every country, or even, except in unusual circumstances, in several countries at once. This world-wide nature of the socialist revolution followed, for Marx, from the very nature of modern productive forces, which makes capitalism a world system, an economic system that tends towards the integration of human society on the planetary scale. A fortiori, socialism, being the product, in the last analysis, of a transition of the productive forces to a still higher level, cannot really exist otherwise than as a world system. Hence the necessity for the revolution to win through in the advanced countries ‘when a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only’, Marx emphasized, ‘will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.’

The version according to which Lenin revised Marx on this point, by establishing theoretically that it was possible to build socialism in one country taken separately, does not correspond to historical truth: it was manufactured by Stalin in order to furnish the support of authoritative arguments to his own theses on the question. The present Soviet leaders have ‘developed’ these theses so far as to proclaim the possibility of building Communism in the USSR even if capitalism continues to dominate a considerable proportion of the world’s productive forces.

Stalin’s manipulation of Lenin’s ideas on this subject was facilitated by the very widespread confusion between two concepts which are commonly formulated in the same terms: the concept of the socialist revolution as a social revolution, as the socialist transformation of economic and social structures and of political and cultural superstructures; and the concept of the socialist revolution as a political revolution, marked with the distinctive feature of the capture of power by the working class. The first content of the concept ‘socialist revolution’ wholly includes the second: every social revolution, whether socialist or bourgeois, includes as a necessary stage a political revolution, the taking of power by a new class. The second content, however, includes the first only partly: every political revolution — unless it is merely a coup d’état that transfers power from one group to another within the same ruling stratum — has a more or less developed social content; and this is all the more so when the political revolution in question is the one implied by the capture of power by the working class. But this politico-social content is only the first stone of a building the construction of which is subject to laws and conditions different from those that made it possible to lay that first stone. In order to distinguish between the two contents of the concept ‘revolution’, Lenin brought in the expressions ‘revolution in the broad sense’ and ‘revolution in the narrow sense’, and these I shall make use of from now on.

The difference of content between the socialist revolution in the broad sense and the socialist revolution in the narrow sense includes, among other fundamental aspects, a difference of space and time. In the first case, the space is world-wide and the time covers an entire epoch of history; in the second, the space is national (or, more precisely, country-wide) and the time is reduced to a brief period of history. When Marx and Engels speak of the possibility of a victory of the socialist revolution in some particular country, taken separately, they are employing the concept in its narrow sense. They do not contemplate the hypothesis that this victory may remain isolated, within a nationally confined space, for a long period. This problem was thrown up by practice itself, when the proletarian revolution was crushed everywhere except in Russia, in the years following the war of 1914-18, while Soviet power became consolidated. The failure of Marxists, from Marx to Lenin, to consider this eventuality was due to the fact that their theoretical conception of the socialist revolution as necessarily a world revolution caused them to rule out any such possibility.

Starting from this conception of theirs, the assumption made by Marx and Engels about how the socialist revolution would develop concretely went as follows. This revolution would cover a whole period of history and would be a long process, not an act — a process in which structural transformations affecting politics, culture and so on would follow one another and overlap on a world-wide scale; but the beginning of this process, the essential condition for it to start, was a victory of the revolution (in its narrow sense) in the economically most advanced countries. And although Marx and Engels never supposed that this victory could occur simultaneously in all those countries, they nevertheless saw it as a succession of socialist political revolutions following each other closely and being closely dependent on each other. As we shall see, Lenin did not depart in essentials from this overall conception.

Owing to the changes that took place in the situation in Europe in the 1840s and in the second half of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels put forward a series of more precise prognostications regarding the way the revolutionary process would begin. While keeping to their central thesis, namely that the socialist revolution would begin in the most advanced countries, they considered the possibility that other types of revolution — bourgeois-democratic, national-liberation, etc. — which might break out in the backward countries of Europe could serve as a prelude to the socialist revolutions in the advanced countries, eventually becoming merged with these in a single revolutionary process. In the 1840s they thought that the German revolution might play this role; in the last quarter of the nineteenth century they transferred their hopes on to Russia. Echoing Marx, Kautsky wrote in 1902 that ‘the centre of revolutionary thought and revolutionary action is shifting more and more to the Slavs’, and he saw in the Russian revolution, the warning signs of which were already undeniably visible, ‘the storm that will break the ice of reaction and irresistibly bring with it a new and happy spring for the nations’.

During the revolution of 1905-7 Lenin reflected upon the dialectical interdependence between the Russian revolution and the socialist revolution which, as he saw it, in common with Kautsky and other ‘orthodox’ theoreticians of the Second International, had matured in Europe. The way in which Lenin understood this interdependence is of capital importance for appreciating the attitudes he took up in 1917 and after October. Not only did he consider that ‘the Russian political revolution’ would be made ‘the prelude to the socialist revolution in Europe’,[1] he also thought that the fate of the Russian revolution depended on its nature as a ‘prelude’, that is, on its being followed by a socialist revolution in the West. This was the conclusion to which Lenin was led from his starting-point in an analysis of the revolutionary process in Russia. As this process went deeper, he thought in 1905, the liberal bourgeoisie and the well-to-do peasants, and even a section of the middle peasants, would go over to counter-revolutionary positions. A new crisis would break out, in which the proletariat, while defending the democratic gains won in the first phase of the revolution, would now put forward the socialist revolution as its immediate aim. In this new phase, had it come to that, wrote Lenin, defeat would have ‘been as inevitable as the defeat of the German revolutionary party in 1849-50, or the French proletariat in 1871, had the European socialist proletariat not come to the assistance of the Russian proletariat’. Given this aid, however, ‘the Russian proletariat can win a second victory. The cause is no longer hopeless. The second victory will be the socialist revolution in Europe. The European workers will show us “how to do it” and then together with them we shall bring about the socialist revolution.’[2] In order to be able to see with such assurance this prospect before the Russian revolution, Lenin needed to have confidence in the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat in the West. This predisposition on his part accounts, perhaps, for the optimism characteristic of the views he expressed in this period: ‘The masses of workers in Germany, as well as in other countries, are becoming welded ever more strongly into an army of revolution, and this army will deploy its forces in the not far distant future — for the revolution is gaining momentum both in Germany and in other countries.’[3] Or: ‘Only the blind can fail to see that socialism is now growing apace among the working class in Britain, that socialism is once again becoming a mass movement in that country, that social revolution is approaching in Great Britain.’[4] Or again: ‘This figure [the circulation of the weekly Appeal to Reason] . . . shows more clearly than long arguments the kind of revolution that is approaching in America.’[5]

After 1905 Lenin also included in his overall vision of the revolution ‘the awakening of Asia’.

Following the 1905 movement in Russia, the democratic revolution spread to the whole of Asia — to Turkey, Persia, China. Ferment is growing in British India. A significant development is the spread of the revolutionary democratic movement to the Dutch East Indies… World capitalism and the 1905 movement in Russia have finally aroused Asia… The awakening of Asia and the beginning of the struggle for power of the advanced proletariat of Europe are a symbol of the new phase in world history that began early this century.[6]

The Russian revolution was no longer the ‘prelude’ to the revolution in the West alone but also to the revolution in the East.

Lenin, as a revolutionary leader in what was ‘in very many and very essential respects . . . undoubtedly an Asian country and, what is more, one of the most benighted, medieval and shamefully backward of Asian countries’, understood better than the Marxists of advanced capitalist Europe the meaning and the implications of the ‘awakening of Asia’ though without getting free of the ‘Eurocentrist’ standpoint that was as typical of the Second International as it had been of Marx and Engels. Referring to the Chinese revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Lenin asks:

Does that mean, then, that the materialist West has hopelessly decayed and that light shines only from the mystic, religious East? No, quite the opposite. It means that the East has definitely taken the Western path, that new hundreds of millions of people will from now on share in the struggle for the ideals which the West has already worked out for itself. What has decayed is the Western bourgeoisie, which is already confronted by its gravedigger, the proletariat. But in Asia there is still a bourgeoisie capable of championing sincere, militant, consistent democracy, a worthy comrade of France’s great men of the Enlightenment and great leaders of the close of the eighteenth century.

Regarding as ‘altogether reactionary’ the dream according to which ‘capitalism can be “prevented” in China and that a “social revolution” there will be made easier by the country’s backwardness, and so on’, Lenin compares Sun Yat-sen’s programme to that of Russia’s Narodniks. The Chinese revolution, in Lenin’s view, will be bourgeois agrarian in type, and a long period will have to elapse before the question of abolishing bourgeois production-relations arises.[7]

Thus, before the war of 1914, Lenin had determined the essential elements of his strategic schema of the world revolution, in which the Russian revolution constituted the prelude and the link between the socialist revolution in the West and the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the East. This theoretical construct of his linked together three types of revolution: directly socialist revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries (Western Europe and the USA); the Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution, which, taking place in a situation where a relatively large and concentrated proletariat was present, could proceed without any interruption, given the help of the victorious proletariat of Europe, to develop into the socialist revolution; and the revolutions in the East, where, as there was practically no proletariat, a protracted phase of capitalism sui generis would be necessary. The essential agent in the grand combination of revolutionary forces foreseen by Lenin continued to be the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries. They it was who would have to show the others ‘how to do it’. On them it depended whether the Russian revolution would be able to unfold fully, to the end, and whether the Oriental revolutions, once the proletariat had developed in those countries, would in their turn be able to go forward to socialism. And, as we have already seen, Lenin had no doubt that the Western proletariat possessed this revolutionary capacity. His conception of the world revolution thus remained in essentials that of Marx and Engels, though perceived from the angle of the Russian revolution.

Until he wrote his famous ‘April Theses’, Lenin did not think that the Russian working-class could take power before the working-class of the West. The change of outlook he then revealed was supported by Trotsky but resisted by some well-known Bolshevik leaders who clung to the party’s traditional line, according to which conditions in Russia did not permit the proletarian revolution to start there before it had begun in capitalist Europe.[8] Lenin’s new attitude was not inspired solely by the unprecedented situation of ‘dual power’ created after the February revolution; it was also based on conviction that revolution was imminent on the European and the world scale, and that the taking of power by the Russian proletariat would merely be the first act in this European and world-wide revolution. Lenin maintained, in defiance of his adversaries: ‘The Russian revolution of February-March 1917 was the beginning of the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. This revolution took the first step towards ending the war; but it requires a second step, namely, the transfer of state power to the proletariat, to make the end of the war a certainty. This will be the beginning of a “break-through” on a world-wide scale, a break-through in the front of capitalist interests.’[9] And he asserted that ‘the proletariat, as represented by its class-conscious vanguard, stands for . . . the development of a world workers’ revolution, a revolution which is clearly developing also in Germany, and for terminating the war by means of such a revolution... The world situation is growing more and more involved. The only way out is a world workers’ revolution ...’[10] When, on 23 October 1917, the Bolshevik Central Committee met and took the historic decision to prepare for armed insurrection, the resolution which explained why the moment was opportune stressed that the socialist revolution was growing throughout Europe and there was danger of a separate peace being signed between the imperialist powers with the aim of crushing the Russian revolution before the European socialist revolution could come into play.


[1] Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry’, Collected Works (CW), vol. 8, p. 304.

[2] Lenin, ‘The Stages, the Trend and the Prospects of the Revolution’, CW, Vol. 10, p. 92.

[3] Lenin, ‘Paul Singer’ (1911), in CW, Vol. 17, p. 95.

[4] Lenin, ‘Meeting of the International Socialist Bureau’ (1908), in CW, Vol. 15, p. 237.

[5] Lenin, ‘The Successes of the American Workers’ (1912), in CW, Vol. 18, p. 335.

[6] Lenin, ‘The Awakening of Asia’ (1913), in CW, Vol. 19, pp. 85-6.

[7] Lenin, ‘Democracy and Narodism in China’ (1912), in CW, Vol. 18, pp. 163-69.

[8] In a statement sent to leading Party organizations on October 11 (24 Julian calendar), and soon after published in an opposition paper Novaia zhizn, Bolshevik leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the Central Committee’s plans for a Soviet insurrection, arguing that the Party lacked sufficient support both in Russia and internationally and proposing instead that it await the promised Constituent Assembly election, in which they thought the Party’s chances were excellent. The Constituent Assembly, they said, “can only rely on the Soviets in its revolutionary work. The Constituent Assembly plus the Soviets – here is that mixed type of state institution we are going towards. Based on this, our Party’s policy gets a tremendous chance of a real victory…. In the Constituent Assembly, we will be so strong as an opposition party that, with universal suffrage in the country, our opponents will be forced to yield to us at every step, or we will form a ruling bloc with the Left SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries], the non-party peasants and others which will basically have to promote our programme.” The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks), August 1917-February 1918 (Pluto Press, 1974), pp. 89-95. (RF)

[9] Lenin, ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution’, CW Vol. 24, p. 67.

[10] Lenin, ‘Lessons of the Crisis’, Vol. 24, p. 215.

1 comment:

Dayne said...

Thank you Richard, amazing to read what veteran CP-of-Spanish-state leader Fernando Claudin [ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fernando_Claud%C3%ADn ] was writing in late 1960s. I appreciate learning that experience of the 1905 Russian revolution contributed to Lenin (like Trotsky) developing a perspective of 'permanent' (i.e. worldwide) revolution:
V. I. Lenin
The Stages, the Trend, and the Prospects of the Revolution
https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1905/dec/31.htm
Written late in 1905 or early in 1906
First published in 1926 in Lenin Miscellany V. Published according to the manuscript.
Lenin Collected Works, Progress Publishers, 1965, Moscow, Volume 10, pages 89-92.