Thursday, October 7, 2021

The Communist International, A Critical Analysis – Part III

Excerpted from Fernando Claudín, The Communist Movement


The overthrow of bourgeois power in a state covering a sixth of the earth’s surface certainly constituted a historic international victory of the revolutionary movement inspired by Marxism. But the world context in which this victory had been won, the ‘resistance’ put up by capitalism in the advanced countries, the notable strengthening of capitalism in some key areas (North America, Japan), the national framework within which the socialist revolution was still confined — in a backward country, to boot — called in question some essential aspects of the theoretical conception of the process of world revolution that had been worked out by Marx, Engels and Lenin. It was not easy, however, in the setting of 1921, when Lenin saw clearly that the revolutionary drive in Europe had been checked, to penetrate the profound significance of this new reality. On the one hand, the importance of the revolutionary victory won in Russia and the impression made by the presence of the first proletarian state in history were sufficiently dazzling to hide the contradictions between the new situation and the traditional theoretical schemas. On the other, it was easy, at first, to reconcile this new situation with the old schemas: all that was needed was to look upon what was happening as a momentary interruption in the expected process of the world revolution. The curtain would not be long in rising on the second act. This was the solution found for the problem by the leaders of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern. Trotsky formulates it very clearly in presenting the principal report (‘The World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Comintern’) to the Third World Congress, on 23 June 1921:

‘Only now do we see and feel that we are not immediately close to our final aim, to the conquest of power on the world scale, to the world revolution. We told ourselves back in 1919 that it was a question of months, but now we say that it is perhaps a question of several years. Exactly how long, we do not know, but we know that development is proceeding in that direction, and that during this period we have become much stronger throughout the world.’[1]

The ‘theses on tactics’ voted by the Congress declare that ‘the world revolution ... will require a fairly long period of revolutionary struggle’, but consider that ‘what may be expected is not the waning of the star of the world revolution, not the ebb of its waves, but, on the contrary, the aggravation of social antagonism and social struggles, and the transition to open civil war’.[2]

The theses of this Congress acknowledge a fact of primary importance: ‘The variety in the degree of acuteness reached by contradictions in different countries, the variety in their social structure and in the obstacles to be surmounted, the high level of organization of the bourgeoisie in the highly developed capitalist countries of west Europe and North America, meant that the world war did not issue immediately in the victory of the world revolution.’[3]

But the Congress did not try to ascertain why in 1919, and even in 1920, immediate victory was thought to be possible despite the existence of reasons which ‘meant’ ruling out that possibility. The theses explain the behaviour of the proletariat by the attitude of the ‘powerful Social Democratic labour organizations and parties’, but at the time when the congress met these parties and trade unions had recovered their former strength and even increased it. How was this fact, together with the high degree of organization of capitalism, to be reconciled with the prospect, which was held out as probable in those theses, of an immediate sharpening of social struggles? These ambiguities — which reveal the presence of theoretical uncertainties — are to be seen in all the documents of the congress. The old schema of the world revolution’s progress is retained, with the new phenomena stuck on to it:

(1) The imperialist system is moving towards another world war, which will give rise to a new great revolutionary crisis. The principal contradictions that will provoke the war this time are the ones between the USA and Britain, on the one hand, and the USA and Japan, on the other.

(2) The initial revolutionary break-through will take place this time, as it did before, in that country where the concentration of contradictions, internal and external, creates the biggest explosive charge. Germany, defeated in the First World War, much weakened economically, oppressed by the Treaty of Versailles, and possessing a Communist Party that is the strongest section of the Comintern after the Russian party, is seen as a likely candidate to play the role that Russia played in 1917.

(3) After this break-through the revolution will spread to the other links in the capitalist system — the advanced countries and the colonies. This time, the revolutionary wave will be able to count from the start on the support of a proletarian state, of a military force ready to come to the aid of the international proletariat. Conserving and strengthening this citadel is therefore a matter of fundamental importance for the world revolution, and the congress says so. But the principal factor in the world revolution continues to be, for the Bolshevik leaders and for the Comintern, the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries.

In order to ensure that the schema was both coherent and credible, two big unknowns had to be eliminated, the first of these being the behaviour to be expected from the European proletariat, given past experience. The Third Congress theses recognize, but only to reject it at once, the possibility that European capitalism may re-establish itself, with the working class agreeing to work under conditions worse than those that prevailed before the war. The reformist trade unions and parties, the theses (‘on the international situation and the tasks of the Comintern’) observe, are trying to urge the workers in this direction, ‘but the European proletariat is not ready to sacrifice itself. It demands an improvement in its lot, which is at present absolutely incompatible with the objective possibilities of capitalism.’[4] By coming up against this ‘absolute incompatibility’ the economic struggle of the working class would be transformed — so the congress forecast — into a revolutionary struggle, which would be provided with the appropriate political leadership by the sections of the Comintern. This prospect was based on two assumptions: the first, a new terminal situation of European capitalism, in which it would be incapable of satisfying economic demands that would imply a real improvement in the material situation of the working class as compared with pre-war; and, the second, connected with the first, that the reformist organizations would not take up the struggles for these economic improvements, thus losing their influence over the working class. Both of these assumptions were soon to be disproved by events.

The second unknown was no less important. The Third Congress recognized that, while European capitalism had come weakened out of the war, American capitalism, on the contrary, had been considerably strengthened, and ‘the centre of gravity of world economy has shifted from Europe to America’.[5] In order to triumph on the world scale, the revolution would therefore have to spread to the United States. The Congress theses ‘deal with’ this unknown by means of the following argument:

‘While in Europe the concentration of property has been based on general impoverishment, in the United States both this concentration and the greater acuteness of class antagonisms have reached an extreme degree on the basis of a feverish expansion of wealth. The sudden changes in the economic situation because of the general uncertainties of the world market give to the class struggle in America an extremely tense and revolutionary character. A period of capitalist expansion unprecedented in history is bound to be followed by an unusual outburst of revolutionary struggle.’[6]

As regards the national liberation movement in the colonies, the prospect seemed clear. Since the October revolution the importance of this ‘front’ of the world revolution had grown steadily, fully confirming Lenin’s forecasts on the subject. The documents and the practical activity of the Comintern pay genuine attention to it — but this ‘front’ is always subordinated to the ‘main front’, namely, the advanced capitalist countries.

The Fourth and Fifth Congresses of the Comintern (in 1922 and 1924) made no important change in the general schema of the progress of the world revolution as conceived by the Third Congress. Soon after the Fifth Congress, recognition was to be introduced that a phase of ‘relative stabilization’ of capitalism had begun — a phase which was expected to be short-lived, and to be followed by a fresh great revolutionary break-through.

The first questionings of the relevance of this now already classical schema of world revolution, and of the optimism to which it testified, came from its principal author himself. In Lenin’s last writings, and especially in his last article (February 1923), doubt and disquiet show through regarding the fate of the Russian revolution and of the world revolution. We hear for the first time a pessimistic note sounded in relation to the revolutionary possibilities in the advanced capitalist countries. Lenin looks for a way out in three main directions: the struggle of the oppressed peoples of Asia, exploitation of inter-imperialist contradictions and rapid industrialization of Soviet Russia. The prospect of the triumph of the world revolution has become blurred, in an uncertain view of the future. The propositions of this article[7] can be summed up thus:

(1) Lenin sees the whole world as embraced by the orbit of the world revolution and as divided into two camps: on one side the victorious and prosperous capitalist countries of the West and the East (Japan); on the other, the colonial and semi-colonial countries, Soviet Russia and the European countries defeated in the war. The main axis of development of the world revolution runs through the struggle between these two camps.

(2) The panorama offered by the camp of the oppressed is not at all a cheering one. The revolution has conquered in Russia, but the country lies in ruins, and petty production predominates. Germany can face up to her conquerors only with difficulty, for ‘all the capitalist powers of what is called the West are pecking at her and preventing her from rising. On the other hand, the entire East, with its hundreds of millions of exploited working people, reduced to the last degree of human suffering, has been forced into a position where its physical and material strength cannot possibly be compared with the physical, material and military strength of any of the much smaller West-European states.’

(3) As regards the victorious capitalist states, Lenin considers that they are in a position, thanks to their exploitation of the colonies and the defeated European countries, to grant concessions to the exploited classes such as may hold back the revolutionary movement.

(4) In face of this setting for the world revolution, Lenin becomes extremely prudent concerning its prospects: ‘The outcome of the struggle as a whole can be forecast only because in the long run capitalism itself is educating and training the vast majority of the population of the globe for the struggle. In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity ...’ On the horizon of the world’s history, Lenin sees approaching ‘military conflict between the counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East, between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, comprise the majority ...’ In order that it may ‘ensure our existence until’ this occurs, however, `this majority must become civilized’. And, referring specifically to Russia, he goes on to say: ‘We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requi­sites for it.’ (‘Civilization’ here means, for Lenin, industrialization and cultural development of the Western type. This is why, in another part of his article, he says that the people of the East have finally entered upon development along ‘the general European capitalist lines’.)

If we compare this schema of Lenin’s with the previous ones, we clearly perceive a shift in the role and relationship of the world revo­lutionary forces. The Western proletariat, as a revolutionary force, has moved down, for a certain period, to the second place. And the op­pressed masses of what today we call the ‘third world’, together with the ‘oriental’ Soviet state, have moved up to the first place. At the same time, in order that this new force, which is rising ‘with extraordinary rapidity’, into the struggle for its own emancipation, may prove victor­ious, time is needed, sufficient time. The problem of ‘gaining time’ is in the forefront of Lenin’s preoccupations.

Drawing from this analysis the conclusions that relate to the Russian revolution, Lenin says that the central problem is that of ensuring its survival until the armed confrontation takes place between the imperi­alist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East. The line he recommends in order to succeed in this task is as follows: inside Russia, to ensure leadership of the peasant masses by the working class and to carry out a policy of far-reaching economy so as to concentrate resources for industrializing the country; in international policy, to profit from the contradictions between the imperialist states, so as to avoid a clash with them. In short, gain time while actively preparing for the day when, on the one hand, the conflicts between the imperialist states and the aggravation of their ‘internal contradictions’, and, on the other, the strengthening of the Soviet republic and of the national liberation movement of the oppressed peoples brings about a balance of forces on the international scale that is favourable to the world revolution.

It is useless to speculate on the theoretical and political ‘extensions’ that this beginning of a revision might have led to in Lenin’s activity if death had not taken him off prematurely. We find some of the ideas outlined here in the conceptions of Mao Tse-tung and, in general, in those strategies that see the masses of the ‘third world’ as the protagonist of the world revolution. Others served as compass for Stalin’s strategy, especially as regards the principle of keeping the Soviet State out of the conflicts between the imperialist states, and exploiting to this end the contradictions between them. Here we find, too, the idea of according priority to the economic and military strengthening of the Soviet state as a part of the development of world revolutionary forces — an idea that is not expressed with clarity by Lenin, but can easily be deduced from his last writings.

Some analysts of Leninism have concluded, somewhat precipitately, that these ideas of Lenin’s implied a radical revision of Marx’s conception of the socialist revolution. For Marx the specifically capitalist contradictions are the mainspring of the socialist revolution, and the optimum ‘maturing’ of this revolution occurs in advanced capitalism, whereas, for Lenin, the conditions for the socialist revolution are to be found, it is said, rather in ‘backwardness’. According to Alfred G. Meyer, Lenin substituted ‘the dialectics of backwardness’, as driving force of the revolution, for the Marxian dialectics based on a high degree of development of the productive forces.[8] This conclusion drawn by Meyer and others results from two confusions. When Lenin refers to the revolutions of the East he does not mean socialist revolutions, but bourgeois-democratic revolutions that will have to go a long way before they become transformed into socialist ones.[9] The second confusion is the one I have already remarked upon: that between revolution in the broad sense and revolution in the narrow sense. Before the October revolution and right down to the end of his life, Lenin always maintained that revolution in the narrow sense — and initially bourgeois-democratic in character — is easier in the underdeveloped countries, but that the transition to socialism will present grave difficulties in these countries. On the other hand, in his view, in the advanced capitalist countries the revolution in the narrow sense (the taking of power by the proletariat) is more difficult, whereas the building of socialism will be easier. At no stage did Lenin revise Marx’s essential thesis. In February 1922 he wrote: ‘We have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism — that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism.’[10] What Lenin was beginning to revise, in fact, in the article summarized above, was his conception of the concrete course of development to be followed by the world revolution: in the first place by extending it in time, replacing the near-at-hand prospect by a very long-term one, and in the second by noting the need for a new ‘prelude’ to the decisive stage (which for Lenin is still the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries), namely, the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the oppressed countries of the East.

We may presume that, for a theoretical mind like Lenin’s, the doubts and misgivings that appear in his last writings would have led to a deeper study of the new phenomena of capitalism and imperialism, of the revolutionary awakening of the ‘backward’ countries, of the behaviour of the proletariat in the ‘advanced’ countries, and so on. We may think that such a study would have induced him to revise the Comintern’s strategy and tactics and also, perhaps, the very conception of its structures and working. It was not by accident, doubtless, that, at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (November 1922), referring to the resolution on the structure, methods and activity of the Communist parties which had been adopted by the Third Congress, Lenin said: ‘The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. . . I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success.’[11] It is no less significant that Lenin’s main recommendation to the Communists, both of the Soviet Union and of other countries, at this congress, was that they should study. ‘I think that after five years of the Russian revolution the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike, is sit down and study. . . We must take advantage of every moment of respite from fighting, from war, to study, and to study from scratch’.[12]

This amounted to saying that there were some very important questions still to be cleared up. This was why Lenin also advised that no decision be adopted on the Comintern draft programme, but that it be studied more carefully, among other reasons because ‘we have given scarcely any thought to possible retreat, and to preparations for it’.


[1] Quoted by Branko Lazitch, Lénine et la Ille Internationale, La Baconnière, Neuchatel, 1951, p. 176. (This passage, which will be found in the Russian verbatim report of the Congress — Tretiy vsemir’ny kongress Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala, stenografichesky otchet, Petrograd, 1922, pp. 45-6 — is omitted in the text of Trotsky's speech given in The First Five Years of the Communist International, I, New Park Publications, London, 1973.)

[2] Decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, CPGB, London, p. 4.

[3] Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International (1919-1943): Documents, OUP, London, 1956-65, I, pp. 242-3 (my italics).

[4] ibid., p. 237 (my italics).

[5] The First Five Years of the Communist International, I, op. cit., p. 292.

[6] Degras, op. cit., I, pp. 233-4.

[7] Lenin, ‘Better Fewer, but Better’, in CW Vol. 33, pp. 499-501.

[8] Alfred G. Meyer, Leninism, Praeger Paperback, New York, 1962, Chapter 12.

[9] At the Second Congress of the Comintern, in 1920, Indian delegate M.N. Roy objected to the characterization of liberation movements as “bourgeois-democratic” in Lenin’s draft theses on the national and colonial questions. Roy argued that support should be granted only to genuinely revolutionary movements of the masses. ‘Responding to Roy’s suggestions, Lenin’s report on the national and colonial questions specified that the liberation movements to be supported in backward countries should be termed not “bourgeois-democratic” but “national-revolutionary” […]. This distinction has proved useful to communists ever since. Although national-revolutionary movements embrace several classes and are not communist, the participation of communists in the struggles led by these movements has laid a basis for building stronger communist organizations among the workers and peasants.’ John Riddell, The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, I, pp. 51-52. – R.F.

[10] Lenin, CW Vol. 33, p. 206.

[11] Lenin, ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution’, in CW Vol. 33, p. 430.

[12] ibid., pp. 430-31 (my italics).

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