Wednesday, October 6, 2021

The Communist International, A Critical Analysis – Part II

Excerpted from Fernando Claudín, The Communist Movement

Lenin’s confidence regarding the imminence of the world revolution was organically connected with the analysis of imperialism that he had made in 1915-16, basing himself on the researches of Hobson, Hilferding and others, as well as on Bukharin’s study of the subject. His conclusion, so far as the connection between imperialism and the revolution is concerned, can be summed up in these expressions he uses: ‘imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution’, it is ‘moribund capitalism’.[1] Today, after fifty years of capitalism’s ‘death-agony’, some Soviet theoreticians — inspired, apparently, by the pious desire to safeguard Lenin’s infallibility — claim that by ‘moribund’ Lenin only meant to say that imperialism was capitalism ‘in transition’. But all Lenin’s writings of this period show that he was using this expression in its strictest and most ordinary sense.

The October victory looked like the first great confirmation of Lenin’s schema: the world front had been broken through, and broken through where the ‘April Theses’ had foreseen that this would happen. Moreover, the terrible situation in which the Russian revolution found itself in 1918, compelled to accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, seemed to confirm another forecast of Lenin’s: the Russian revolution was doomed unless it spread to the West. In November of the same year the German revolution (which, at first sight, presented a pattern suggestively similar to the Russian revolution of February 1917: overthrow of the monarchy, workers’ councils, reformist hegemony in the government, opposition down below) came on the scene to provide brilliant final confirmation, apparently, of Lenin’s assumptions. The real world seemed to be conforming to the world-as-thought with almost Hegelian rigour.

As soon as he received the first news of the German crisis, Lenin sent orders to Sverdlov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Soviets. ‘The international revolution,’ he wrote, ‘has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days,’ and he urged Sverdlov to organize aid for the German workers, including ‘military aid’. ‘We must have by the spring an army of three millions to help the international workers’ revolution.’[2] Lenin was more than ever convinced that the hour of the ‘final struggle’ had sounded; but there was a cloud darkening this horizon: ‘Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no revolutionary party.’[3] And without a revolutionary party the revolution could not win.

This attitude of Lenin’s may seem incongruous if we look at it in the light of a version of his thought that is very often found among some ‘Marxologists’ and ‘Leninologists’, according to whom Leninism owed more to Blanqui than to Marx. If the revolution is the work of a conscious minority, organized and determined — which was Lenin’s theory, according to this version — how could Lenin see the revolution taking place while at the same time noting the absence of a revolutionary party? Who, then, had ‘organized’ this revolution? Actually, Lenin’s conception of the revolution does not differ from that of Marx and Engels, for whom the social phenomenon called revolution is comparable to natural phenomena, in so far as it does not depend on the will, taken in isolation, of individuals, classes and parties; revolution is the independent result of all of these separate wills, the product of their contradictory interaction, of the extremely complex articulation of economic, political, social, cultural and other factors, even if, ‘in the last analysis’, the determining element in this diachronic-synchronic totality is the dialectic of the economic structures. This is perhaps why all revolutions up to the present have begun for apparently fortuitous reasons and why the development of each of them has displayed very original features as compared with its predecessors. Freely exaggerating the similarity between revolution and natural phenomena, Engels wrote in a letter to Marx on 13 February 1851 (after, that is, Marx’s conception of revolution had reached the mature stage expressed in the Manifesto, and had undergone the test of 1848):

‘A revolution is a pure natural phenomenon which takes place more under the influence of physical laws than under that of the laws which govern the development of society in normal times. Or, more precisely, these laws acquire in times of revolution a much more physical character: the material force of necessity is manifested more intensely. And inasmuch as one comes forward as the representative of a party one will be swept into this maelstrom of natural inevitability.’[4]

In 1918 Lenin considered that the ‘maelstrom’ was present there and then, drawing the entire world into itself, and that all that was needed was a party capable of inserting itself into this maelstrom as the conscious representative of ‘natural inevitability’.

Lenin’s vision of the march of the world revolution at the time of the German revolution of November 1918 can be summarized like this:

(1) The contradictions of the imperialist system have brought about — through their outcome, the world war — the complete maturing of the objective premises (on the plane of economic structures and of social forces alike) for the international socialist revolution;

(2) The revolution has begun where the concentration of these contradictions involves the biggest explosive charge (where oppression by the Tsarist autocracy is combined with the contradictions between capitalist and pre-capitalist structures, with the ruin caused by the war, the oppression of the non-Russian nationalities, and so on) and where, at the same time, a political agent exists which has been trained and prepared on the theoretical, political and organizational planes, namely, the Bolshevik party;

(3) In inevitable obedience to the international character of the contradictions that have engendered it, the revolution is beginning to spread into the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. Victory on this terrain will be decisive for the world revolution. The Russian revolution will be reinforced, the proletariat of North America will follow Europe’s example, and the liberation movement that has begun in the colonies will see its triumph assured;

(4) In Europe, however, the conscious and organized agent, the revolutionary party of the Bolshevik type, is missing. Unless such a party is created, the fate of the world revolution is in danger.

The operational conclusion that emerges from this schema is obvious. The revolutionary party must at all costs be created, on the European and the world scale; and this must be done before the favourable objective situation changes. The Bolshevik leaders were engaged in a dramatic race against time. At a not very representative gathering, and ignoring the contrary opinion expressed by the Spartacists (the revolutionary group of greatest importance after the Bolsheviks, at that time), the Communist International, the ‘world party of revolution’, was founded in March 1919.

In closing this First Congress of the Comintern Lenin said: ‘The victory of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is assured. The founding of an international Soviet republic is on the way.’ And, the same day, at a meeting of the foreign delegates with leaders of the Bolshevik party, he assured those present that they would live to see world-wide victory: ‘The comrades present in this hall saw the founding of the first Soviet republic; now they see the founding of the Third, Communist International, and they will all see the founding of the World Federative Republic of Soviets .’[5] A year and a half later, when the Second Congress of the Comintern met, Lenin’s forecasts had been sadly rebuffed by reality, but it was still possible to suppose that the world revolution was ‘there’. True, the Hungarian Soviet revolution had been crushed, together with the ephemeral Workers’ Republic in Bavaria, and the German revolution had moved on to the rails of the very bourgeois-democratic Weimar Constitution. Nevertheless, the situation continued to be highly unstable in Germany and throughout Central Europe, as also in the Balkans, Italy and Spain — and, above all, the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw. These last hopes were to collapse very soon. When the Third Congress of the Comintern met, in the summer of 1921, it had begun very clearly to appear that the ‘final struggle’ would have to be postponed. The real world was separating itself from the world-as-thought. Something had cracked in Lenin’s theoretical schema, and this ‘something’ could not but have serious consequences for the tool that had been created precisely to serve this schema, namely, the Communist International.


The defeat suffered by the attempts made at proletarian revolution in Western Europe after the war of 1914-18 was due to a highly complex set of factors and circumstances; but from this diversity it is possible to select one incontestable fact which was of fundamental importance, namely, that the majority of the European working class, even where the crisis went farthest, as in Germany, continued to follow their traditional political and trade-union organizations and not the new revolutionary party. In one way or another this was acknowledged in all the analyses made by Lenin and the Comintern, when they alleged that the basic factor in the defeat was ‘betrayal’ by the reformist leaders. This explanation calls out for another to be given: why did the workers follow these ‘traitor’ leaders?

The confidence Lenin showed in the victorious advance of the world revolution contains an assumption that is implicit even when it is not clearly expressed: the proletariat of the West will soon turn their backs on the opportunist leaders and come over to the side of the revolutionary party when this takes the field. This was the meaning of his statements, quoted above, at the end of the inaugural congress of the Comintern. Obviously, without this presupposition Lenin’s theses on international revolution in the near future would have been mere phrase-mongering: and nobody was more hostile than Lenin to the ‘revolutionary phrase’. Of course Lenin did not imagine that the working class would go over to revolutionary positions automatically, through the mere effect of objective conditions. But he did think that the working masses would be won for the positions of the Bolshevik party very quickly, once this party had been launched, even if it were very much in the minority to start with. The same phenomenon that had occurred in Russia between February and October would be repeated elsewhere.

Where this question was concerned, indeed, Lenin transferred to the European and even the world process of events the pattern that had been followed by the February-to-October process in Russia. Referring to the German revolution, he wrote: ‘Once again it is here revealed that the general course of the proletarian revolution is the same throughout the world. First the spontaneous formation of Soviets, then their spread and development, and then the appearance of the practical problem: Soviets, or National Assembly, or Constituent Assembly, or the bourgeois parliamentary system; utter confusion among the leaders, and finally — the proletarian revolution.’ Lenin puts on the same plane the German ‘Independent Socialists’ and the Russian Mensheviks, the struggle for the leadership of the workers’ councils in Germany and that which had taken place for the leadership of the Soviets in Russia.[6] He draws a parallel between the repression of the Spartacists in January 1919 and the ‘July days’ of 1917 in Russia: ‘We know from experience how quickly such “victories” of the bourgeoisie and their henchmen cure the people of their illusions about bourgeois democracy, “universal suffrage”, and so forth.’[7] In short, the German ‘November’ was identified with the Russian ‘February’, and just as the Bolsheviks, from being a mere minority in February, had within a few months won the support of the proletariat and peasantry of Russia, so the Spartacists, from being a small minority in November 1918, would win the support of the masses in order to lead them to the German ‘October’, and would do this even more quickly than had happened in Russia: ‘The German revolution is developing in the same way as ours, but at a faster pace.’[8] Lenin’s genius did not escape the temptation that lies in wait for all victorious revolutionary leaders, namely, that of making ‘their’ revolution the model to which all subsequent revolutions must conform. But what it is interesting to note here in this transposition of the Russian model is Lenin’s grave underestimation of the influence of reformist politics and the reformist mentality among the proletariat of the advanced countries. I do not mean to say that Lenin underestimated the wide extent of the reformist phenomenon, but rather its depth, the firm roots that it possessed in the working-class masses of the West.

This underestimation of the penetration of reformism into the Western proletariat was a symptom of theoretical shortcomings that were to have an effect on the political plane in the way that the new revolutionary party was created, the way its structures and mode of working were conceived and its tasks worked out. The root of these shortcomings can be found, it seems to me, in Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in its monopoly phase. As I have mentioned already, Lenin, like Rosa Luxemburg, and like Kautsky in his first period, saw world capitalism in the monopoly, imperialist stage as having reached a terminal situation. The world war, which led Kautsky to make a politico-doctrinal revision in which a penetrating understanding of the new structural phenomena of capitalism provided a foundation for opportunist political conclusions, had for Lenin the effect, on the contrary, of strengthening his belief. When analysing the contradictions of the system, Lenin tends to make much of their destructive side and little of their driving power — the role played by these contradictions as a factor in dynamizing and adapting the capitalist mechanism and transforming its structures. He appreciates accurately the process of capitalist concentration, the specific weight acquired by state monopoly capitalism in the system as a whole, the acceleration of this process owing to the war; but, for Lenin, all these structural changes result invariably in a linear intensification of the contradictions, a cumulative aggravation, which leads inevitably to the conclusion that the situation is hopeless — even if he elsewhere wrote that there can be no situation in which there is no way out for the bourgeoisie. He points out, very correctly, that the advanced degree to which production has become socialized creates the most favourable material foundations for the transition to socialism; he notes that this process provides capitalism with certain mechanisms of regulation and planning — but he underestimates the effect that these new instruments can have in reducing, within certain limits and in certain phases, the destructive role played by the system’s contradictions. The economic and trade-union conquests won by the working class in the decades preceding the war are seen by Lenin almost exclusively as achievements that thrust capitalism helplessly towards the edge of its grave. He thus fails to see that, at the same time, they illustrate the capacity possessed by advanced capitalism to digest some of these changes and to use them as factors in ‘rationalizing’ its economic mechanism, while simultaneously increasing its capacity to alienate. This type of analysis leads him to describe monopoly capitalism not merely as transitional (alluding to the high degree of socialization of production) but also as moribund. It is this type of analysis that causes him to consider that a rapid radicalization process is going on amid the European proletariat, profoundly undermining the influence of the reformist leaders. The ‘betrayal’ by these leaders during the war and the disasters that this has brought upon the masses must bring to completion, provided only a revolutionary group of the Bolshevik type is present to do the work of enlightenment, the split which is bound to occur between the leaders and the masses.

Lenin sees the economic basis of reformism in the labour movement most exclusively in colonial exploitation. As Stuart R. Schram and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse point out, the idea ‘that colonization would make it possible to improve the lot of the European workers and thus to delay social revolution in Europe was a belief shared, at the beginning of the twentieth century, by all those who had thought about the problem, whether they were socialists like Kautsky, Hilferding or Rosa Luxemburg, liberals like Hobson, or partisans of imperialism like Cecil Rhodes, who saw in the colonies a means for avoiding civil war’.[9] Lenin concurs in this explanation of opportunism in the working-class movement, but considers that, in the continental countries that joined in the colonial share-out only late in the day, the ‘corruption’ of the workers affects only a small minority, which he calls the ‘labour aristocracy’; while, as regards Britain, he considers that the phenomenon is on the decline, since she has lost her colonial monopoly. No doubt colonial exploitation has been (and still is, in its neo-colonialist form) an ideological as well as an economic basis for reformism. But it has become clear today that reformism is also nourished by structural transformations in capitalism that are connected with the development of the productive forces. In Lenin’s day this aspect was particularly well perceived by the Bernsteinian revisionists, who were anxious to find all possible motives, true or false, to justify their renouncement of revolution.

A problem of sociological viewpoint also enters into Lenin’s subjectivism in appreciating the degree to which the Western proletariat had reached revolutionary maturity. Whereas he sees with perfect clarity the dialectical mediations between the contradictions at the level of economic structures and those at the level of politico-social forces in the case of Russian society, in which he was deeply rooted and which he had analysed thoroughly in a long process of theory and practice, he sees these same mediations in a rather abstract and simplified way when what is involved is Western society, which he knows only from the outside, as an observer, despite his years of exile there. It is above all the cultural universe in which the Western proletariat is immersed that escapes him: for example, to take two aspects which profoundly affect its political behaviour, the Western proletariat’s deep attachment to national and democratic values. The nation and democracy were, historically, products of capitalism, but they were also conquests won by the working masses. The ‘betrayal’ of the principle of internationalism by the Social Democratic leaders expressed perfectly (while also stimulating) the attachment to the national principle that was a feature of the working people’s consciousness. And when the German Social Democrats invoked ‘defence’ of parliamentary democracy against Tsarist autocracy, or the French Socialists invoked ‘defence’ of the gains of the Great Revolution against Prussian militarism, they were echoing sentiments that were deeply rooted in the masses. The great trade-union tradition of the European proletariat — absent in Russia — is another element with which Lenin’s analysis does not sufficiently reckon, when he proclaims world-wide extension of the Russian Soviets as the form to be assumed by the mass movement.

Account must be taken, finally, of the special psychological inclination of Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders that followed from their theoretical conception of the interdependence between the Russian revolution and the revolution in the West. It was necessary for the Russian revolution that the European revolution should not ‘miss its appointment’. This necessity could not but affect in a negative way the scientific rigour shown when analysing the revolutionary potential of the European proletariat.

It is this psychological inclination that explains, perhaps, why, when studying the revolutionary situation in Europe after November 1918, Lenin did not accord the importance it deserved to the change in the role being played by the question of peace. In Russia, this had been the key question that had rallied the majority of the people round the Bolsheviks: the proletarian revolution meant making peace. In Germany and the other European countries, once the Armistice had been signed, it was revolution that represented for the masses a return to war — in the form of civil war and foreign intervention. And the masses wanted peace, above all.

To sum up: the divorce, revealed by practice, between Lenin’s ideas about the proletariat of the industrialized capitalist countries and the actual behaviour of this proletariat shows up (as well as the psychological aspect that has been mentioned) the absence, in Marxist theory, of an answer to certain political and theoretical problems concerning the road to revolution in these types of society. And this is perfectly comprehensible if we keep in mind a fundamental circumstance, namely, that there was no precedent for revolutions of this kind.

If Lenin was able to work out the theory of the Russian revolution, with its original combination of bourgeois-democratic and socialist tasks, and make his rigorous analysis of the behaviour in it of classes and social groups, parties and political institutions, forms of struggle and so on, this was because the Russian revolution, as a ‘natural phenomenon’, to use Engels’ expression, had been a fact since 1905. It was this that provided the materials that enabled the theoretical work to be done. If there are no ‘materials’ of this order available, the entire works of Marx and Engels are inadequate for building the theory of the revolution in a given society.

When he elaborates his overall theory of the socialist revolution as a world revolution, Lenin suffers from this lack of ‘materials’ where advanced capitalism is concerned, and also, to a smaller extent, where the colonial liberation movement is concerned. (In the latter case, he reckons with the experience of the first revolutions of this kind, which began after 1905, but the geographical remoteness of which made it hard to grasp directly in their extreme originality.) In practice, Lenin adopted without critical revision the ideas of the left or centrist-orthodox theoreticians of the Second International as regards the ‘maturing’ of the revolution in the advanced countries. But this certificate of maturity was in contradiction with the reality of the reformist process — the process of ‘integration’, as we should say nowadays — that was going forward in those countries. The supposed ‘maturing’ was based on general formulas of Marxism and not on a concrete analysis of the real process. Hence the fact that the struggle against reformism was abstract in content, and proved ineffectual on the political and ideological plane. It started out from a metaphysical conception of the readiness of the proletariat for revolution, even if the actual conduct of the proletariat seemed to give this the lie. The reformist bureaucracy, trade-union and political, which dominated the labour movement was seen by the left as a foreign body in relation to the proletariat. When the first major economic crisis struck — and, a fortiori, in a crisis like the war — the split between them would take place and the revolutionary ‘essence’ of the proletariat would manifest itself in full strength. However, the war proved exactly the opposite: it revealed the strength and the depth of the reformist phenomenon. This depth was itself only an aspect, though a fundamental one, of a larger reality, namely, that the revolution had not yet ‘matured’ in advanced capitalist society. It was only knocking at the door. The ‘general crisis’ of capitalism was beginning, but this was to be much more complex than Lenin had foreseen. It was very hard to imagine that several decades would pass before the socialist revolution presented itself in the principal capitalist countries. Lenin was even less able to imagine — though a shade of doubt does appear in his last writings — that the ‘general crisis’ of capitalism would be accompanied by a ‘general crisis’ of Marxist thought. And yet the premises that made this second crisis possible, even if not inevitable, had already been given.


[1] Lenin, “Imperialism’, CW Vol. 22, pp. 187, 302.

[2] Lenin, ‘Letter to Sverdlov’, 1 October 1918, in CW Vol. 35, pp. 364-5. All Lenin’s articles and speeches during the last months of 1918 and throughout 1919 reflect his profound conviction that the world revolution had begun.

[3] ‘Lenin, ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 113. (This is not Lenin’s well-known book, but a shorter article, bearing the same title, which gives the essence of the longer work.)

[4] Marx and Engels, Werke, Vol. 27, Dietz, Berlin, 1965, p. 190.

[5] Lenin, ‘Concluding Speech at Closing Session’, CW Vol. 28, pp. 476-7 and ‘Founding of the Communist International’, in ibid., p. 485.

[6] Lenin, ‘Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 470.

[7] Lenin, ‘Letter to the Workers of Europe and America’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 435.

[8] Lenin, ‘Meeting of Moscow Party Activists, 27 November 1918’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 216.

[9] Stuart R. Schram and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Marxism and Asia, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1969, p. 22.

1 comment:

  1. Claudin writes:
    "But what it is interesting to note here in this transposition of the
    Russian model is Lenin’s grave underestimation of the influence of
    reformist politics and the reformist mentality among the proletariat
    of the advanced countries. I do not mean to say that Lenin
    underestimated the wide extent of the reformist phenomenon, but rather
    its depth, the firm roots that it possessed in the working-class
    masses of the West."

    The key factor that Lenin may have underestimated is the complete
    dedication to defending capitalism of the reformist leadership of the
    SPD. Writing in the late 1960s Claudin may have been unaware of the
    November 10, 1918 secret arrangement between Friedrich Ebert, head of
    the SPD and of the government (Chancellor) and General Wilhelm
    Groener, head of the German Army. SPD leader Ebert collaborated with
    the German military to violently crush the German revolution which, as
    Lenin judged, could otherwise have succeeded (Ebert-Groener pact ). AFAIK the
    first widespread international exposure of the Ebert-Groener pact came
    with Sebastian Haffner's book "Failure of a Revolution: Germany
    1918/19" first published in German in 1969.

    There has been a huge amount of historical research on these matters
    since Claudin published his history "The Communist Movement: from
    Comintern to Cominform" in 1970. The essential work is Pierre Broue's
    "The German Revolution 1917-1923" first published in French in 1971
    (but not in English until 2005).
    Broue describes how the SPD leaders fought aggressively and
    successfully (relying on military veterans) to win majority control of
    the first tentative national gathering of workers councils in November
    1918. IMO Broue has a much deeper understanding of the role of
    socialist leaders, party organizations, party members and the working
    class generally in the outcome of the protracted revolutionary
    situation in Germany than is manifest in Claudin's comment quoted

    A couple of the publications which i have read that provide a better
    understanding of the political situation then in Germany are: "The
    Socialist Left and the German Revolution: A History of the German
    Independent Social Democratic Party 1917-1923" (the left split from
    the SPD which outgrew it numerically during those years) by David W.
    Morgan, published by Cornell University Press in 1975 and Robert F.
    Wheeler's 1970 University of Pittsburgh dissertation "The Independent
    Social Democratic Party and the Internationals: An Examination of
    Socialist Internationalism in Germany 1915 to 1923" published in two
    volumes by University Microfilms in 1971.

    Claudin mistakenly says that the key factor was the "reformist
    mentality" among the working class but at least he does present
    Lenin's contrasting view on the crucial factor of political
    " Lenin was more than ever convinced that the hour of the ‘final
    struggle’ had sounded; but there was a cloud darkening this horizon:
    ‘Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no
    revolutionary party.’[3] And without a revolutionary party the
    revolution could not win.
    and "In Europe, however, the conscious and organized agent, the
    revolutionary party of the Bolshevik type, is missing. Unless such a
    party is created, the fate of the world revolution is in danger."

    Unfortunately Rosa Luxemburg had long held a spontaneist perspective
    on revolutionary socialist strategy. She first exerted leadership to
    organize a German revolutionary socialist party in December 1918. The
    founding congress of the German Communist Party was held over New
    Years Day 1919. Also unfortunately it was dominated by ultralefts who
    voted down Rosa's perspective of participating in elections and labor
    unions. Lenin was right. There was no revolutionary party in Germany
    that could have, like the Bolsheviks, led a successful revolution.