KOREA COLUMN 24
The International Communist Movement: Part 1
The last two of these columns have dealt with Stalinism in the Soviet Union. This one deals with the history and fate of the international communist movement.
Internationalism has always been a fundamental principle of Marxism and genuine socialism, and Marxists have always sought to organise their forces internationally. Faced with the betrayal of internationalism by the majority of the parties of the Socialist or Second International in 1914, when they supported their own ruling classes in the First World War, Lenin speedily grasped the need for a new (third) international. However, circumstances – primarily the combination of the War and lack of forces – prevented the realisation of this project until fifteen months after the Russian Revolution.
In March 1919 the First Congress of the (Third) Communist International was convened in Moscow in conditions of civil war in Russia and a rising tide of revolution sweeping Europe. Its aim was to create more than just a federation of national parties. The Comintern, as it became known, was to be a single international revolutionary organisation – the Russian Bolshevik Party on a world scale – capable of leading the international proletariat to victory worldwide.
At the time of its First Congress the Comintern was still relatively weak. Apart from the Russian Communist Party the bulk of the foreign Communist Parties participating were from Eastern Europe – the Hungarian, Polish, Latvian, Estonian CPs and so on. From Western Europe and elsewhere came mainly the representatives of small groups or trends, not yet fully formed parties and in many cases not yet fully formed Communists. But by the Second Congress in July 1920 not only had the number of parties represented increased dramatically, so had the size of their support in the working class, especially in Germany.
By now the Communist International had emerged as the highest point yet reached in the history of the organisation of the international working class and the most powerful threat to the rule of the bourgeoisie that has existed up to and including the present day. For the first and only time in history, three things seemed to coincide: a deep and general crisis of the world system, a massive upsurge in militancy and consciousness in the working class internationally, and the existence of strong interlinked revolutionary organisations in a number of countries. Tragically the Comintern did not succeed in its aim and the opportunity was missed.
Why was this? Essentially it was due to a failure of revolutionary leadership. The two crucial defeats were in Italy and Germany and in both cases the passivity of the workers leaders was the decisive.factor. In 1919-20 Italy experienced its biennio rossi, its ‘two red years’, in which there were mass strikes and large scale factory occupations, especially in Turin and Milan. But the leadership of the main working class party, the Italian Socialist Party, which had flirted with the Comintern, sat on its hands and did nothing. The result was not only the missing of a revolutionary opportunity but a terrible reactionary backlash. The two red years were followed by two black years, which culminated in the conquest of power by Mussolini’s fascists.
In terms of building a real revolutionary party it could be said that Italian Marxists were strategically late and tactically premature. On the one hand the revolutionary left remained for too long attached to the wavering and reformist leadership of the Socialist Party. On the other the actual break to form a Communist Party, when it came in 1921, was rushed through in such a way as to minimise the forces won from reformism.
In Germany the process was more drawn out but no less catastrophic in the end. The German Revolution began in October 1918 with a mutiny of sailors in Kiel which spread like wildfire through the German armed forces. Within weeks the Kaiser abdicated and power was assumed by the leaders of German Social Democracy. In January 1919 the revolutionary Spartacus League (shortly to become the German Communist Party) attempted to transform this democratic revolution into a workers’ revolution through an uprising in Berlin. The rising was premature and was put down by an alliance of the Social Democratic Government and right wing militia, called the Freikorps. Its leaders, Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxumberg, - Luxemberg was Germany’s foremost Marxist and revolutionary at this time – were murdered.
The so-called Weimar Republic with its Social Democratic government continued but so did the revolutionary crisis. In March 1920 came the Kapp Putsch, a rightwing military attempt to crush the republic, but it was defeated by a nationwide general strike. Then in 1921 the Communist Party, which had grown massively, launched another revolutionary offensive called the March Action. Again it was premature, and again it was defeated.
Still the chronic instability of German society persisted and it all came to a head once again in the summer and autumn of 1923.when Germany was gripped by extreme hyperinflation. In January 1923 1 US $ = 18,000 marks, in June 1$ = 100,000 marks, in December 1$ = 4000 billion marks! With workers carrying their wages in wheelbarrows, support for the Communist Party mushroomed. But having twice acted prematurely the German Communist leaders, acting on advice from Moscow, now did nothing - the moment was lost and German capitalism restabilised itself, at least for five years.
The consequences of this can hardly be overstated. If the German Revolution had succeeded the likelihood is that capitalism would quickly have fallen in all the countries between Russia and Germany, and the possibility is that this would have created such revolutionary momentum that we would be living in a socialist world today. As it was the German defeat brought the post war revolutionary crisis to an end and ensured the isolation of the Russian Revolution, thus massively reinforcing the tendencies to bureaucratic degeneration and Stalinism that were already beginning to manifest themselves.
Behind the failures in Italy and Germany and elsewhere in Europe (e.g. Hungary and Bulgaria) lay the fact that in the short period of time available, less than four years, it proved impossible to transfer to the fledgling European CPs the experience and lessons of revolutionary strategy and tactics acquired by Lenin and the Bolsheviks over decades. Unfortunately the years that followed showed that it was much easier to transfer to the international movement the methods and policies of Stalinism. The consequences of this for the Comintern and for the international working class will be discussed in part 2 of this article.
8 June 2007