Friday, October 8, 2021

The Communist International, A Critical Analysis – Part IV

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This concludes the excerpts from chapter 2 of Fernando Claudín’s The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform. It is followed by a brief Afterword.


We have seen that the Leninist theory of the course of the world revo­lution made necessary a ‘world party’, strongly centralized on a global scale, with a semi-military discipline and rigorous ideological unity. As we have also seen, the urgency of creating this party was due to Lenin’s view that the objective conditions had arrived for the world revolution to be victorious (‘moribund’ capitalism, and a very high revolutionary level of the Western proletariat). All that was lacking was a party capable of putting itself at the head of the irresistible revolutionary process. We have seen, too, that this conception of Lenin’s was refuted, both in its general theoretical aspect and in its conjunctural aspect, by the actual march of history. The crisis of theory thus opened was not recognized as such, but remained, in fact, subjacent all through the internal struggle that went on in the Bolshevik Party leadership and in the Comintern. Stalin ‘resolved’ the problem by means of an empirical revision of the theory of world revolution, propounded by Marx and Lenin: as a result of this revision, the victory of the revolution in the industrialized part of the world ceased to be a necessary condition for building socialist society, which could now be fully constructed within the national limits of the USSR. Nevertheless, Stalin’s revision still retained the con­ception of a ‘moribund’ capitalism which had reached the end of its historical evolution and was incapable of allowing for any substantial new development of the productive forces. The coming victory of the world revolution was inexorably determined in advance by the junction of these two processes: ‘building socialism’ in the USSR (with, conse­quently, ascent of the productive forces to a higher level, without pre­cedent under capitalism), and ‘decay’ of capitalism, becoming ever more acute. The key factor became the ‘building of socialism in the USSR’, whereas the Western proletariat, and along with it the peoples of the colonies and semi-colonies, saw themselves relegated to the role of auxiliary factors. In this way the Comintern’s total subordination to Soviet policy was given theoretical justification. This was the essence of Stalin’s theory of the world revolution, which was taken over by the Comintern. A victim of its own logic, the theory was itself set aside when the security of the USSR, as seen by Stalin, required that this be done. And, to conclude, one day it became opportune, by virtue of this same requirement, to put an end to the Comintern, the ‘world party’ conceived by Lenin.


The Bolsheviks, said Rosa Luxemburg in her essay on the Russian revolution, ‘by their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international social­ism … have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions’. But she added, prophetically: ‘The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.’[1] The danger did indeed begin there. For, on the one hand, the Russian revolutionary theoreticians yielded to the temptation to make a virtue of necessity, and, on the other, the admiration and enthusiasm with which the Russian revolution filled the revolutionaries of all countries predisposed them to accept its message uncritically. This development was favoured by the fact that the ‘theoretical forces’ formed in the Second Inter­national had (with rare exceptions such as Rosa Luxemburg, Mehring and some others of less importance) all deserted the camp of revolution. Their critique of the Russian revolution, from reformist or liberal posi­tions, contributed to reinforcing still further, for the revolutionaries of the capitalist world, the authority of the Bolshevik conceptions.

At the moment when critical thinking was most necessary, the October revolution introduced theoretical complacency. Everything seemed to have been settled, in principle — the paths of the revolution, the tactics to be used, the model for the party — when in reality everything had become more problematical than at any previous moment in the history of the labour movement. This was so in the West, where the revolution had been beaten and the bulk of the proletariat turned a deaf ear to revolutionary Marxism, and in the East, where the revolution was awakening in a setting that Marxism had hardly yet explored. It was so even in Russia, where the proletarian revolution was isolated, encircled internationally by the capitalist world and bogged down internally in the peasant and petty-bourgeois marsh. Unlike Marx, however, the heralds of the October revolution proclaimed to the revolutionaries of all coun­tries: ‘Behold the truth, and bow down before it!’ This doctrinaire atti­tude could not but encourage sectarianism and authoritarianism, favouring the dogmatization of Marxism in its Bolshevik version and leading to underestimation of the national originality of other countries — those of advanced capitalism as well as those oppressed by imperi­alism.

Lenin himself, though he often emphasized the need to avoid copying Russian experience in a mechanical way, wrote in ‘Left-Wing’ Commu­nism, An Infantile Disorder (and he repeated this in other places): ‘Not merely several but all the primary features of our revolution, and many of its secondary features, are of international significance.’ And even though he stressed that, when the revolution had triumphed in an advanced country, Russia would then become a backward country, from the socialist standpoint, he added: ‘At the present moment in history, however, it is the Russian model that reveals to all countries something — and something highly significant — of their near and inevitable future.’ In the conclusion to this famous lesson in tactics, Lenin reiterated the need to take into account ‘the concrete features which this struggle assumes and must inevitably assume in each country, in conformity with the specific character of its economics, politics, culture and national composition (Ireland, etc.), its colonies, religious divisions, and so on and so forth’.[2] It was a matter, however, of taking these ‘concrete features’ into account in order to apply a theoretical and political set of ideas regarded as having already been worked out and tested by historical experience, so far as its essential components and ‘principles’ were concerned. To those inherited from Marx some new elements were added: soviets constitute the universal form of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the party of the Bolshevik type is the universal model of the Marxist revolutionary party; etc. At no stage was it suggested that the diversity of national realities and the new world reality might require a new Marxist analysis in depth capable of bringing forward new revo­lutionary theories. There seemed to be no notion at all that events, instead of fully confirming the theory of the revolution inherited from Marx and Engels, enriched by Lenin’s contributions, had called in question some essential aspects of this theory.

The mental attitude of the Bolsheviks, which was transmitted through the Comintern to the non-Russian Communists, could be summed up as follows: the October revolution had made it possible to complete the Marxist theory of the revolution with regard to questions on which, owing to their lack of concrete experience, the two great masters had not been able to get far enough. For example: the contradictions of imperi­alism, the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, problems of strat­egy and tactics, the type of party, etc. What still remained problematical thenceforth was not the theory of the revolution as such, but only its particular interpretation in relation to the specific conditions prevailing in each country. On a more general theoretical plane, the October vic­tory was seen as irrefutable proof of the absolutely scientific character of Marxism. ‘It is therefore clear,’ wrote Bukharin in his Historical Materialism, ‘That Marxists have a perfect right to regard proletarian science as true and to demand that it be generally recognized.”[3]

The depository of this ‘true science’ in the world outside the Soviet Union was the Comintern. But the Comintern concentrated its attention — since the basic questions of the theory of the revolution were seen as having been settled — on strategic, tactical and organizational forms of action. Philosophical, economic, historical and sociological inves­tigations were of only secondary interest. Political schemes became in­creasingly detached from the social sciences and, in general, from the cultural milieu in which they were to be applied. In the Comintern’s discussions on the colonial problem, for example, the categories remained, baldly: ‘proletariat’, ‘peasantry’, ‘national bourgeoisie’, etc., without ever, or only rarely, taking into account the cultural universe characteristic of those countries, so radically different from that of the West.

The contradiction between theoretical positions and actual develop­ment began to find symptomatic reflection in the passionate discussions on tactical problems that dominated the first congresses of the Comintern. No one, however, formulated clearly the idea that there was a crisis of theory. After Lenin’s death, as though in an attempt to over­come all doubts and misgiving, the tendency to ‘theoretical com­placency’ and the dogmatization of Marxism rapidly intensified. One must not hesitate to defend the Marxist ‘dogma’, wrote Bolshevik, the theoretical journal of the Soviet party: ‘Only by fulfilling this task with­out deviation will it be possible to keep unspotted the flag of the theory of the proletarian revolution, the flag of the Marxist “dogma”. It is quite pointless to be afraid of this word. The fight against “dogmatic” Marxism has always been an activity of reformists far remote from Marxism, such as Bernstein. All that is best in the working-class move­ment has always fought for the “dogma” of Marxism.’ [4] The dogma (without quotation-marks) was, needless to say, Leninism. History repeated itself. After Lenin’s death the young Third International was making the same mistake as that made by the Second after the death of Marx and Engels, when it ‘canonized’ their doctrine.


This process of dogmatization and continual shrinking of the theoretical foundations of the Comintern was clearly reflected in the Commu­nist parties. Those which, when they were formed, lacked any national heritage of theory (such as, for example, the Spanish one) vegetated in a routine-ridden activism; those which possessed such a heritage (like the German and Italian ones) were unable to cultivate it: the theoretical work of Rosa Luxemburg was doomed to ostracism, as was, later, that of Gramsci. In his report on the Comintern delivered to the Fifteenth Congress of the CPSU (December 1927), Bukharin alluded to the theoretical weakness of the Communist parties in general, and of their leading circles in particular, as constituting one of the Comintern’s main shortcomings. He emphasized how few intellectuals there were in these leading groups, noting that ‘the series of crises which we witnessed. in our Communist parties, since the time when the revolutionary wave subsided, affected first of all the intellectual upper stratum’. With a careful choice of words, he mentioned that this misfortune had not left the Soviet party untouched. The leaders of the USSR, he observed ‘are overburdened with general work and cannot give enough attention to the theoretical work’. And this weakening in theoretical work through the Comintern was taking place at a time when ‘the situation now is much more complicated and much greater demands are made on the executive than before’, as regards theoretical leadership.

Bukharin was one of the few leaders of the Comintern who, during the 1920s, began to think about fundamental problems connected with the structure of capitalism, the changes taking place in the working class, the colonial question and so on. […] In the same report Bukharin commented that the Comintern had only a very general notion of the colonial problem. The Chinese revolution, he said, had made it possible to perceive this weakness: ‘The entire complication of the social class entanglement, the great difficulty of the tasks con­nected with the conduct of such a tremendous colonial revolution, only faced us quite recently in grim reality.’[5] In each concrete case, Bukharin emphasized, it was necessary to analyse the class structures. The Comintern’s theses on the colonial question provided it with only a very general basis.

All these incitements to tackle the new problematic presented by world development were to be swept aside during the struggle against ‘the right-wing deviation as the main enemy’. Even so, neither the prestige-backing that the October revolution had brought to the dog­matization of Leninism as Marxism’s last word, nor the repressive and administrative mechanism of the Comintern, is sufficient to account for the progressive paralysis that overcame revolutionary Marxist thinking in the capitalist world between the wars. During this same period, within the framework of the Comintern, the Chinese revolutionary intel­ligentsia did begin to break out of the schemas manufactured by the Comintern centre in Moscow and really to follow the Bolshevik example. They took the first step towards the elaboration of a revo­lutionary theory of the Chinese revolution, just as the Bolshevik intellec­tuals had done when they created an original theory of the Russian revolution.[6] But the Chinese Communists not only had the Comintern, they also had a revolution under way, just as the Bolsheviks had not only had Marx and the Second International but also the revolution taking place in Russia. It is therefore legitimate to wonder if it was not a deeper-lying reality — the objective immaturity of the socialist revolution in the countries of advanced capitalism — that conditioned the paralysis of theoretical thinking among the revolutionary Marxists of the West, even if the factors that have been mentioned did contribute strongly to aggravating it, or can account for it as, specifically, a state of ‘paralysis’.

It is not my intention, of course, to claim that the productive forces of advanced capitalism did not already constitute, in the period of which I write, an adequate material basis for the socialist transformation of society. I refer to the immaturity of the revolution, which is a very different matter, despite the frequent confusion made between these two problems. If we start from Marx’s theoretical theses on the objective maturing of the socialist revolution, taking the concept of revolution in its broad sense and not in the narrow sense of the capture of power by the working class (or by a party claiming to represent it), then it is not enough for this maturity to have arrived that productive forces should exist that can sustain a new social order. It must also be the case that capitalism is incapable of developing new productive forces. If, at cer­tain moments of their lives, Marx and Engels foresaw the victory of the socialist revolution in Europe, this was because they thought that capi­talism had reached this terminal situation. We see that conviction ex­pressed already in the Manifesto. Lenin made a similar appreciation regarding capitalism as transformed into the imperialist system. The Comintern’s leaders took this over as it stood, and built upon it all their strategic and tactical plans. As we have seen, the thesis of ‘socialism in one country’ is justified as a new theory of the world revolution in so far as it presupposes, besides the prospect of building socialism in the USSR, the reality of the stagnation and decay of capitalism, now incapable, as Trotsky was to say — in complete agreement on this point with his implacable adversary — of any new development of the productive forces. However, the two world wars and the world economic crisis of 1929 proved to be not the expression of capitalism’s arrival at the terminal situation mentioned, but essential means for transforming it structurally, and giving it a new capacity to expand the productive forces. Monstrous means, to be sure, but the monstrous is a moral cate­gory, not an economic one. The two world wars, in particular, furnished a most striking illustration of the infernal logic of capitalism, of that logic in which, as Marx put it, ‘progress’ resembles the pagan idol who will not drink the nectar otherwise than from the skulls of his victims. If we were to approach the problem exclusively from the ‘moral’ stand­point, it would be hard to understand how mankind, faced with such obvious monstrosities, has not yet put an end to capitalism. This, however, would be to forget that a system that is capable of developing the productive forces also ‘develops’ its own ‘moral’ justifications (in the case of capitalism — patriotism, nationalism, racism, individualism and many other ‘isms’). The reformist ideology, secreted organically by the system’s capacity to develop the productive forces, holds a place of honour among capitalism’s moral as well as political justifications. Would Fascism have been able to exert such attraction upon millions of petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers between the two world wars, con­stituting one of the most monstrous forms of ideological justification of capitalism, if there had not been, behind the demagogy of Mussolini or Hitler, the capacity of German and Italian monopoly capitalism to re­structure the system for a new development of the productive forces?

No terminal situation seems to have yet to have occurred for capital­ism, in the sense of incapacity to develop the productive forces. And the theoretical problem of whether such a situation is now foreseeable, and what processes might lead to it, remains open. But the objective imma­turity of the revolution (in the broad sense) under the advanced capital­ism of today does not in the least signify that between the two world wars, and at the end of the second of these, no situations were presented that were propitious for ‘a bold stroke’ by the revolutionary party (as Lenin sometimes spoke of the October assault) that could have put an end to the monstrous logic of capitalist development in one or another of the industrial countries.

Nevertheless, there must be an underlying connection between this objective immaturity and the theoretical and political immaturity hith­erto demonstrated by the revolutionary vanguards formed under ad­vanced capitalism, when it is a matter of profiting by situations propitious to revolution (in the narrow sense).

The first ‘immaturity’ represents a considerable barrier — operating through a very complex series of justifications, such as those already mentioned and many others as well — across the road by which current social consciousness can arrive at a root-and-branch condemnation of the system. And theoretical consciousness, which can arise only in the intel­lectual strata, suffers from the absence of this pressing stimulant. When society is really in a situation of general crisis (I include among the components of such a situation an incapacity of the socio-economic mechanism to continue developing the productive forces without chang­ing its own nature), this is not only reflected, in a more or less confused way, in ordinary social consciousness: the ‘theory-producing’ stratum is affected by it, too, in its own social existence as well as in the values and conceptions that have until then made up its cultural universe. It is not only the experience of society as a whole but its own most immediate experience that impels this stratum to find a revolutionary theory appro­priate to the prevailing crisis. This is what happened in the societies of Russia and China, as it had happened already in the society of Ger­many in the middle of the nineteenth century, without our needing to go any farther back in history. (Let us not forget that Marx and Engels, as revolutionary theoreticians, were above all products of the general crisis of German society in the middle of the nineteenth century and of the theoretical consciousness of this crisis. Analysis should be undertaken to determine how far Marx’s ‘German standpoint’ affected the scientific analyses in Capital, leading him to draw excessively hasty conclusions about the maturity of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of the nineteenth century, just as Lenin’s ‘Russian standpoint’ led him to draw similar conclusions regarding the capitalism of the first years of the twentieth century.) However, as we know, the terminal situations of these societies did not result from the contradictions inherent in capital­ist structures, but from the contradictions between the latter and pre-capitalist structures. It was on this basis that the objective premise of the revolution (in the broad sense) theorized by Marx became a reality; namely, the incapacity of the existing socio-economic system to cope with new productive forces.

For the problem that concerns us here we have no need to dwell on the well-known reasons why the Russian and Chinese revolutions did not remain within the ‘bourgeois framework’ but became transformed into proletarian revolutions. What is of greatest interest here is to bring out the fact that elaboration of the theory of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries has up to now lacked the powerful ‘stimulant’ that was enjoyed by both the Russian and Chinese revolutions. What has been absent is that ‘general crisis’ which official Marxism sees as having been present since the First World War, and which has been said to have now entered into its ‘third stage’ — but which has not yet expressed itself in what should have been its main feature, namely, incapacity of the capitalist mechanism to develop the productive forces. Such develop­ment is a fact, and it is going forward at a rate never previously seen.

But recognition that this handicap exists for the theory of the revo­lution in the advanced capitalist countries does not mean acceptance that no such theory is possible. This may be the necessary first step in a theoretical effort to open new prospects for revolutionary transformation of the societies of advanced capitalism, on the basis of a more rigorous knowledge of these societies. In any case, the first condition for arriving at such a theory is that all the schemas and ‘principles’ that social prac­tice has shown to be erroneous shall be reconsidered, along with the methods and institutional structures that have contributed to preventing the discovery of error. The Comintern’s theoretical paralysis may be explicable ‘in the final instance’ by the objective immaturity of the revo­lution in advanced capitalist society, but, even so, we must concern ourselves above all with those other ‘instances’ that contributed to accen­tuating and aggravating the effects of the ‘final’ one.


The unresolved “crisis of theory” manifested in the Comintern of Lenin’s time was magnified exponentially in the Stalinized Comintern in which “theoretical” contortions served to subordinate the policy and practice of the International and its member parties to the strategy of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Claudín’s volumes document this process in the years leading up to the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 – Stalin’s gift to his wartime allies in the imperialist democracies – and subsequently in the successor Cominform established by Stalin to ensure political control over the postwar satellite regimes in the east European buffer states, and to excommunicate socialist Yugoslavia when it defied Moscow’s diktat. The Communist Movement From Comintern to Cominform, initially published in Spanish in 1970, remains an outstanding resource for study of the complex history of the dominant ostensibly Marxist current in the “short Twentieth Century” ending with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The complete two volumes can be accessed on-line: Part 1, and Part 2,

Richard Fidler

[1] In Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, ed. Robert Looker, Jonathan Cape, London, 1972, p. 250.

[2] Lenin, CW Vol. 31, pp. 21-2, 91.

[3] Bukharin, Historical Materialism, English edn, Allen and Unwin, London, 1926, p. xii.

[4] Bolshevik (Moscow), no. 10, 5 September 1924, p. 53. This journal began to appear after Lenin’s death, in the context of the struggle with the Trotskyist opposition.

[5] Inprecorr, English edn, No. 73 of 1927, pp. 1672-5.

[6] It was in March 1926 that Mao's study of the classes in Chinese society appeared, and in March 1927 his report on the investigation he had himself carried out into the peasant movement in the province of Hunan. So far as I know, politico-sociological inquiries like these — comparable to the ones made by Lenin in relation to Russian society at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth — were never undertaken in any of the Western Communist parties during the period of the Comintern.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks Richard for your work choosing and sharing these brief
    selections from Claudin's history of "The Communist Movement: From
    Comintern to Cominform". The sample you have provided reinforces my
    judgment over the years that it did not belong at the top of my
    priority reading list. Claudin does address strategic communist
    movement problems as he sees them but i think his primary motive is
    rationalizing his personal shift from Stalinism to open reformism.

    If it works out someday i would enjoy reading Claudin's history to
    enrich my understanding of historical experiences and practice. With
    your first selection Claudin introduced me to the article Lenin wrote
    in late 1905 or early 1906 (but not published during his lifetime;
    details below) which expressed the same views Trotsky had developed on
    the "permanent" nature of socialist revolution under the circumstances
    of global capitalism.

    Lenin's article tends to corroborate the testimony of lifelong
    revolutionary socialist Adolf Joffe
    [] that Lenin had
    acknowledged his agreement with Trotsky's perspective: "And I have
    repeatedly told you that I heard with my own ears how Lenin admitted
    that you and not he was right in 1905." [ Joffe's "Letter to Leon
    Trotsky, 1927" ]

    V. I. Lenin "The Stages, the Trend, and the Prospects of the Revolution"
    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.