Communism Vol. 3, Part 3 - Communism is not a 'nice idea', it is on the agenda of history (summary of Vol. 2)

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In the last issue of the International Review we published a summary of the first volume of our series on communism, which looks at the development of the communist programme during the ascendant period of capitalism, and at the work of Marx and Engels in particular.

The second volume of the series focuses on the further precisions to this programme derived from the practical experiences and theoretical reflections of the proletarian movement during the revolutionary wave which swept the capitalist world in the years after 1917. We are dividing the summary of this volume into two parts: the first, in this issue, examines the heroic phase of the revolutionary wave, when the prospect of world revolution was very real and the communist programme seemed very concrete; the second will be centred on the descending phase of the revolutionary wave, and on the efforts of the revolutionary minorities to understand the remorseless advance of the counter-revolution.


1. 1905: the mass strike opens the door to the proletarian revolution (International Review 90)

The aim of the second volume of the communism series is to show how the communist programme was developed through the direct experience of the proletarian revolution. Its background is the new epoch of wars and revolutions definitively inaugurated by the first imperialist world war, and more specifically, the rise and demise of the first great revolutionary wave of the international working class between 1917 and the end of the 1920s. We thus modified the overall title of this volume: communism was no longer a prediction of what would become necessary once capitalism had exhausted its progressive mission. It had been placed on the agenda of history by the new conditions of capitalist decadence, an epoch in which capitalism would become not only an obstacle to further progress, but a threat to the very survival of humanity.

However, the volume begins in 1905, a transitional moment when the new conditions could be seen in outline without yet becoming definitive - a period of ambiguity which was reflected in the often ambiguous perspectives drawn up by the revolutionaries themselves. Nevertheless, the sudden explosion of the mass strike and uprising in Russia in 1905 illuminated a discussion that had already begun in the ranks of the marxist movement, and which was axed around an issue that is profoundly relevant to the concerns of this series: how, when the hour of revolution has struck, will the working class actually come to power. This was the real content of the debate on the mass strike, which animated the German Social Democratic Party in particular.

This was in essence a three-way combat: on the one hand, the revolutionary left around figures such as Luxemburg and Pannekoek was leading the fight, first against the openly revisionist theses of Bernstein and others who wanted to explicitly drop all references to the revolutionary overthrow of capitalism, and against the trade union bureaucracy who could not envisage any workers’ struggle that was not rigidly controlled by themselves, and wanted any general strike movement to be narrowly limited in its demands and its duration. But once again the “orthodox” centre of the party, while nominally supporting the idea of the mass strike, also saw it as a limited tactic to be subordinated to a fundamentally parliamentary strategy. The left, by contrast, saw the mass strike as the indication that capitalism was nearing the end-point of its ascendant course, and thus as the precursor to the revolution. Although widely rejected as “anarchist” by all the forces of conservatism in the party, the analysis developed by Luxemburg and Pannekoek was not a repackaging the old anarchist abstraction of the general strike, but sought to draw out the real characteristics of the mass movement in the new period:

  • its tendency to emerge spontaneously, to erupt “from below”, often around partial and transient issues. But this spontaneity was not in opposition to organisation; on the contrary, in the new period, the organisation of the struggle was generated by the struggle itself and as a result was raised to a higher level;
  • the tendency towards a rapid extension to wider and wider layers of the class, essentially on a geographical basis, and founded on the search for class solidarity;
  • the inter-action of the economic and political dimension of the struggle, up to and including the stage of armed insurrection;
  • the importance of the party in this process was not diminished but accentuated. Its task was no longer the technical organisation of the struggle, but precisely because of this its essential role of political leadership now came to the foreground.

While Luxemburg drew out these general features of the mass strike, the understanding of the new organisations of the struggle – the soviets – was elaborated largely by the revolutionaries in Russia. Trotsky and Lenin were able to grasp very quickly the significance of the soviet as the organising instrument of the mass strike, as the flexible form that permitted the masses to debate, decide and develop their class consciousness, and as the organ of proletarian insurrection and political power. Against those “super-Leninists” in the Bolshevik party whose first reaction to the soviets was to call on them to dissolve into the party, Lenin insisted that the party, as the organisation of the revolutionary vanguard, and the soviet, as the organisation for the unification of the class as a whole, were not rivals but complemented each other perfectly. He thus revealed that the Bolshevik conception of the party expressed a true rupture with the old social democratic notion of the mass party and was an organic product of the new epoch of revolutionary struggles.

The events of 1905 also gave rise to sharp debates about the perspectives for the revolution in Russia. This too was a three-way debate:

the Mensheviks argued that Russia was fated to pass through the phase of bourgeois revolution, and therefore the principal task of the workers’ movement was to support the liberal bourgeoisie in its struggle against the Tsarist autocracy. The anti-revolutionary content of this theory was to be fully exposed in 1917;

Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood that the liberal bourgeoisie in Russia was too weak to lead the fight against Tsarism. The tasks of the bourgeois revolution would have to be carried out by a “democratic dictatorship” installed by a popular uprising in which the working class would play the leading role;

Trotsky, basing himself on the notion that Marx had developed in 1848, “the revolution in permanence”, reasoned first and foremost from the international angle: he argued that revolution in Russia would necessarily propel the working class to take power, and that the movement could move rapidly into a socialist phase by linking up with the revolution in western Europe. This approach was a link between the writings of the mature Marx about Russia, and the concrete experience of the revolution of 1917; and to a large extent it was taken on board by Lenin in 1917 when he ditched the notion of the “democratic dictatorship”, again in opposition to the “orthodox” Bolsheviks.

Meanwhile in the German party, the defeat of the 1905 uprising strengthened the arguments of Kautsky and others who argued that the mass strike should only be seen as a defensive tactic, and that the best strategy for the working class was that of the gradual, essentially legalistic “war of attrition”, with parliament and elections as the key instruments for the transfer of power to the proletariat. The response of the left was encapsulated in the work of Pannekoek, who argued that the proletariat was developing new organs of struggle that corresponded to the new epoch in the life of capital; and against the notion of the “war of attrition” he reaffirmed the marxist notion that the revolution aims not at the conquest of the state but at its destruction, and its replacement by new organs of political power.

2. Lenin’s State and Revolution: a striking validation of marxism (International Review n°91)

According to the philosophers of bourgeois empiricism, marxism is no more than a pseudo-science, since it offers no possibility for the falsification of its hypotheses. In fact, marxism’s claims to use the scientific method cannot be tested in the closed walls of the laboratory, but only in the wider laboratory of social history. And the cataclysmic events of 1914 proved to be a striking confirmation of the basic perspective outlined both in the Communist Manifesto of 1848 – which outlines the general perspective of socialism or barbarism – and by Engels’ uncannily accurate prediction of a devastating European war, published in 1887. And in the same way, the revolutionary storms of 1917-19 confirmed the other side of the prognosis: the capacity of the working class to offer an alternative to the barbarism of capitalism in decline.

These movements posed the problem of the dictatorship of the proletariat in an eminently practical manner. But for the workers’ movement there can be no rigid separation between theory and practise. Lenin’s State and Revolution, written during the crucial period between February and October 1917 in Russia, obeyed the need for the proletariat to elaborate a clear theoretical understanding of its practical movement. This was especially necessary because the predominance of opportunism in the parties of the Second International had befogged the concept of the proletarian dictatorship, replacing it more and more with a theorisation of a gradual, parliamentary road to workers’ power. Against these reformist distortions – and also against the false answers to the problem offered by anarchism – Lenin set about restoring the fundamental teachings of marxism on the problem of the state and the transition period towards communism.

Lenin’s first task, therefore, was to demolish the notion of the state as a neutral instrument which could be used for good or ill depending on the will of those who managed it. It was an elementary necessity to reaffirm the marxist view that the state can only be an instrument for the oppression of one class by another - a reality hidden not only by the more established arguments of Kautsky and other apologists, but more concretely, in Russia itself, by the Mensheviks and their allies who used grand phrases about “revolutionary democracy” as a fig leaf over the capitalist Provisional Government that came to power after the February uprising.

Because it is an organ adapted to the class rule of the bourgeoisie, the existing bourgeois state could not be “transformed” in the interest of the proletariat. Lenin thus re-traced the development of the marxist view from the Communist Manifesto to the present day, showing how successive experience of the proletarian struggle - the revolutions of 1848, and above all the Paris Commune of 1871 - had clarified the necessity for the working class to destroy the existing state and replace it with a new kind of political power. This new power would be based on a series of essential measures which would allow the working class to maintain its political authority over all the institutions of the transition period: dissolution of the standing army and the general arming of the workers; election and revocability of all public officials, who should receive the same remuneration as the average worker; fusion of executive and legislative functions in a single body.

These were to be the principle of the new soviet power which Lenin was advocating in opposition to the bourgeois regime of the Provisional Government. The necessity to pass from theory to action in September/ October 1917 prevented Lenin from elaborating further on how the soviets constituted a higher form of the proletarian dictatorship than the Paris Commune. But State and Revolution did have the considerable merit of laying to rest certain ambiguities contained in the writings of Marx and Engels, who had speculated that the working class might come to power peacefully in some of the more democratic countries, such as Britain, Holland or the USA. Lenin made it clear that in the conditions of the new epoch of imperialism, where a militarist state everywhere assumed the mantle of arbitrary power, there could be no further exceptions. In the “democratic” countries as much as the more authoritarian regimes, the proletarian programme was the same: destruction of the existing state apparatus and the formation of a “Commune state”.

Against anarchism, State and Revolution also recognises that the state as such cannot be abolished overnight. After the overthrow of the bourgeois state, classes will still exist, and underneath them, the reality of material scarcity. These objective conditions necessitate the semi-state of the transition period. But Lenin makes it clear that the goal of the proletariat is not to continually strengthen this state, but to ensure the gradual diminution of its role in social life, eventually dispensing with it altogether. This required the constant participation of the working masses in political life and their vigilant control over all state functions. At the same time, it necessitated an economic transformation tending in a communist direction: here Lenin takes up the indications contained in Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme, which advocated a system of labour-time vouchers as a temporary alternative to the wage form.

Lenin was writing this work on the very eve of a gigantic revolutionary experience. It was impossible for him to do more than pose the general parameters of the problems of the transition period. State and Revolution thus inevitably contains gaps and insufficiencies which would be considerably clarified through the next few years of victories and defeats:

  • in his depiction of the economic measures leading towards communism, there is a serious confusion about the possibility of the proletariat simply taking over the economic apparatus of capital once it had reached a stratified form. This lack of understanding about the dangers represented by state capitalism was magnified by the false notion of “socialism” as an intermediate mode of production between capitalism and communism. At the same time there is a lack of emphasis on the fact that the transition towards communism can really only be undertaken on an international scale;
  • the book says very little about the relationship between the party and the new state machine, leaving room for parliamentary-type confusions about the party taking power and confusing itself with the state;
  • there is a tendency to underestimate the scope of the state apparatus, reducing it essentially to “bodies of armed men”, rather than fully assimilating Engels’ view that the state is an emanation of class society and – while remaining an organ of repression par excellence – has the task of holding society together, a task which emphasises the conservative nature of the state, including the semi-state of the transition period. Again the Russian experience was to take Engels’ argument onto a deeper level, revealing the danger of the new state becoming a focal point for bureaucratisation and eventual bourgeois counter-revolution.

Even so, State and Revolution contains many insights into the negative side of the state. In recognising that the new state would have to manage a situation of material scarcity and thus of “bourgeois right” in the distribution of social wealth, Lenin even referred to the new state as “a bourgeois state without the bourgeoisie”, a provocative phrase which, while not being entirely precise, certainly represents a glimpse of the potential dangers emanating from the transitional state.

3. 1918: the programme of the German Communist Party (International Review n°93)

The outbreak of revolution in Germany in 1918 was the conformation of the perspective that had guided the Bolsheviks towards the October insurrection: the perspective of world revolution. Given the historic traditions of the German working class and Germany’s place at the centre of world capitalism, the German revolution was the key to the entire world revolutionary process. It was instrumental in bringing the world war to an end and offered hope to the beleaguered proletarian power in Russia. By the same token, its definitive defeat in the ensuing few years sealed the fate of the revolution in Russia, which succumbed to a terrible internal counter-revolution; and while the victory of the revolution could have opened the door to a new and higher stage in human society, its downfall unleashed a century of barbarism the likes of which humanity had never previously experienced.

In December 1918 – one month after the November uprising and two weeks before the tragic defeat of the Berlin revolt in which Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht lost their lives - the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) held its founding Congress. The new party programme (also known as “What does Spartacus Want?”) was introduced by Rosa Luxemburg herself, who placed the programme in its historic context. While taking its inspiration from the Communist Manifesto of 1848, the new programme had to be set upon very different foundations; and the same was true for the Erfurt programme of German social democracy, with its separation between minimum and maximum demands, which had been suitable for a period in which the proletarian revolution was not yet on the immediate agenda. The world war had ushered in a new epoch in human history – the epoch of the decline of capitalism, the epoch of the proletarian revolution - and thus the new programme had to encapsulate the direct struggle for the proletarian dictatorship and the building of socialism. It demanded a break not only with the formal programme of social democracy, but also with the reformist illusions which had so deeply infected the party in the last part of the 19th and opening decade of the 20th centuries – illusions in a gradual, and parliamentary conquest of power which had even affected revolutionaries as lucid as Engels himself.

But to argue that the proletarian revolution was on the agenda of history did not imply that the proletariat was immediately capable of carrying it through. Indeed the event of the November revolution had shown that the German working class in particular still had a long way to go in throwing off the dead weight of the past, as evidenced by the inordinate influence of the social democratic traitors in the workers’ councils. Luxemburg insisted that the German working class needed to educate itself through a process of struggles, both economic and political, defensive and offensive, which would provide it with the confidence and awareness it needed to take complete charge of society. It was one of the great tragedies of the German revolution that the bourgeoisie succeeded in provoking the proletariat into a premature uprising which would short-circuit this whole process and deprive it of its most far-sighted political leaders.

The KPD’s document begins by asserting its general aims and principles. It makes no bones about recognising the necessity for the violent suppression of bourgeois power, while rejecting the idea that proletarian violence is a new form of terror. Socialism, it points out, represents a qualitative leap in the evolution of human society and it is impossible to introduce it by a series of decrees issued from on high; it could only be the fruit of the creative and collective labour of untold millions of proletarians.

At the same time this document is a real programme in the sense that it puts forward a series of practical measures aimed at establishing the rule of the working class and taking the first steps towards the socialisation of production, for example:

  • the disarming of the police and army officers, the seizure of all arms and ammunition by the workers councils, and the formation of a workers’ militia;
  • the dissolution of the command structure of the army and the generalisation of soldiers’ councils;
  • the formation of revolutionary tribunals;
  • the establishment of a central congress of workers’ and soldiers’ councils elected by workers’ and soldiers’ councils all over the country, and the simultaneous dissolution of all the old municipal and parliamentary assemblies;
  • reduction of the working day to six hours;
  • confiscation of all the means needed to feed, house and clothe the population;
  • expropriation of landed estates, banks, mines, and the major industrial and commercial enterprises;
  • establishment of enterprise councils to assume the essential tasks of administering the factories and other workplaces.

The majority of the measures announced in the KPD programme remain valid today, although by its very nature as a document produced at the beginning of an immense revolutionary experience, it could not be clear on all points. It thus talks about the nationalisation of the economy as a step towards socialism and could not know how easily this form could be co-opted by capital; while it rejects any form of putschism, it retains the notion that the party will put itself forward as a candidate for political power; it is very sketchy about the international tasks of the revolution. But these are weaknesses that could have been overcome had the German revolution not been nipped in the bud before it could really come into bloom.

4. The Platform of the Communist International (International Review n°94)

The platform of the Communist International was drawn up at the CI’s first Congress in 1919, only a few months after the tragic outcome of the Berlin uprising. But the international revolutionary wave was still at its high point: at the very moment the CI held its Congress, news came through of the proclamation of a soviet republic in Hungary. The clarity of the political positions adopted at the First Congress reflected this ascendant movement of the class, just as the CI’s subsequent slide into opportunism was linked to the movement’s descending phase.

Bukharin introduced the Congress discussion on the draft platform, and his remarks were themselves fortified by the considerable theoretical advances that revolutionaries were making in that period. Bukharin insisted that the starting point for the platform was the recognition of the bankruptcy of the capitalist system on a global scale. From the beginning, the CI understood that the “globalisation” of capital was already an accomplished reality, and was indeed a fundamental factor in the decline and collapse of the system.

Bukharin’s speech also highlights a feature of the first Congress – its openness to new developments brought about by the onset of the epoch inaugurated by the war. He thus recognises that, in Germany at least, the existing trade unions have ceased to play any kind of positive role and are being replaced by new class organs thrown up by the mass movement, in particular the factory committees. This contrasts with later congresses when participation in the official unions became mandatory for all parties of the International. But it is in line with the insights into the question of state capitalism contained in the platform, since as Bukharin was to argue elsewhere, the integration of the unions into the capitalist system was precisely a function of state capitalism .

The platform itself is a brief overview of the new period and the tasks of the proletariat. It does not seek to provide a detailed programme of measures for the proletarian revolution. Once again, it affirms very clearly that with the world war, “a new epoch is born. The epoch of capitalism’s decay, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the proletarian communist revolution”. Insisting that the seizure of power by the proletariat is the only alternative to capitalist barbarism, it calls for the revolutionary destruction of all the institutions of the bourgeois state (parliaments, police, courts, etc) and their replacement with organs of proletarian power, founded on the armed workers’ councils; it exposes the hollowness of bourgeois democracy and proclaims that the council system alone enables the masses to exercise real authority; and it provides broad guidelines for the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the socialisation of production. These include the immediate socialisation of the main centres of capitalist industry and agriculture, the gradual integration of small independent producers into the socialised sector, and radical measures aimed at the replacement of the market by the equitable distribution of products.

In the struggle for victory, the platform insists on the need for a complete political break both with the right wing Social Democrats, “outright lackeys of capital and hangmen of the communist revolution” but also the Kautskyite centre. This position – diametrically opposed to the policy of the United Front adopted only two years later – had nothing to do with sectarianism, since it was combined with a call for unity with genuine proletarian forces, such as elements in the anarcho-syndicalist movement. Faced with the united front of the capitalist counter-revolution, which had already claimed the lives of Luxemburg and Liebknecht, the platform calls for the development of mass struggles in all countries, leading towards a direct confrontation with the bourgeois state.

5. 1919: The programme of the dictatorship of the proletariat (International Review n°95)

The existence of a number of different national party programmes, as well as the platform of the Communist International, testifies to the persistence of a certain federalism even in the new International which strove to overcome the national autonomy that had contributed to the demise of the old. But the programme of the Russian party, drawn up at its 9th Congress in 1919, has a particular interest: whereas the programme of the KPD was the product of a party faced with the task of leading the working class in an impending revolution, the new programme of the Bolshevik party was a statement of the aims and methods of the first soviet power, of a real proletarian dictatorship. It was thus accompanied on the more concrete level by a series of decrees which expressed the policies of the soviet republic on various particular issues, even though, as Trotsky admitted, many of these decrees were more in the nature of propaganda statements than immediately realisable policies.

Like the platform of the CI, the programme begins by affirming the onset of the new period of capitalist decline and the necessity for the world proletarian revolution. It also restates the necessity for a complete break with the official social democratic parties.

The programme is then divided into the following sections:

General politics. The superiority of the soviet system over bourgeois democracy is demonstrated by its capacity to draw the immense majority of the exploited and oppressed into the running of the state. The programme points out that the workers’ soviets, by organising on the basis of workplace rather than residence, are a direct expression of the proletariat as a class; while the necessity for the proletariat to direct the revolutionary process is reflected in the disproportionate weight given to urban soviets over rural soviets. There is no theorisation of the idea of the party wielding power through the soviets. In fact the overriding concern of the programme, written during the rigours of the civil war, is to find means to counter-act the growing pressures of bureaucracy within the new state apparatus, by drawing a growing number of workers into the tasks of state management. In the terrible conditions facing the Russian proletariat, these measures proved inadequate, tending to turn militant workers into state bureaucrats rather than impose the will of the militant working class over the bureaucracy. Nevertheless this section reveals an early awareness of the dangers emanating from the state machinery.

The problem of nationality: beginning from a correct starting point – the need to overcome national divisions within the proletariat and the oppressed masses and to develop a common struggle against capital - the programme here displays one of its weaker sides by adopting the notion of national self-determination. At best this slogan can only mean self-determination for the bourgeoisie, and in the epoch of unbridled imperialism it can only involve transferring domination over national units from one imperialist master to the other. Rosa Luxemburg and others would point to the disastrous effects of this policy, by showing how all the nations granted “independence” by the Bolsheviks became bridgeheads of imperialist intervention against the soviet power.

Military affairs. The programme, having recognised the necessity for a Red Army to defend the new soviet regime in a situation of civil war, puts forward a number of measures aimed at ensuring that the new army really does remain an instrument of the proletariat: its ranks should be made up of the proletariat and semi-proletariat; its training methods should be informed by socialist principles; political commissars appointed from among the best communists should work alongside military staff and ensure that former Tsarist military experts worked entirely for the interests of the soviet power; at the same time, more and more officers should be drawn from the ranks of the class conscious workers. But the practise of the election of officers, which had been a demand of the original soldiers’ soviets, was not regarded as a principle and there was a debate at the 9th Congress, animated by the Democratic Centralism group, on the need to maintain the principles of the Commune even in the army, and to oppose the tendency for the army to return to the old hierarchical methods or organisation. A further weakness, and perhaps the most important one, was that the formation of the Red Army had been accompanied by the dissolution of the Red Guards, thus depriving the workers councils’ of their specific armed force in favour of an organ of a statist kind and thus far less responsive to the needs of the class struggle.

Proletarian Justice: the bourgeois courts were replaced by popular courts where the judges were elected from among the working class; the death penalty was to be abolished and the penal system was to be freed of any attitude of revenge. In the brutalising conditions of civil war, however, the death penalty was soon restored and the revolutionary tribunals set up to deal with the emergency situation often committed abuses, to say nothing of the activities of the Special Commissions against Counter Revolution, the Cheka, which more and more escaped the control of the soviets.

Education: given the terrible weight of Russian backwardness, many of the education reforms envisaged by the soviet state simply involved bringing Russia into line with the more enlightened educational practises already current in the bourgeois democracies (such as free and co-educational education for all children up to the age of 17). At the same time, however, the longer-term aim was to transform the school from an organ of bourgeois indoctrination into an instrument for the communist transformation of society. This would necessitate the overcoming of coercive and hierarchical methods, the elimination of the rigid separation between manual and mental labour, and in general the education of new generations into a world where learning and labour had become a pleasure rather than a curse.

Religion: while maintaining the need for the soviet power to conduct intelligent and sensitive propaganda aimed at combating the archaic religious prejudices of the masses, there was a complete rejection of any attempt to forcibly suppress religion, which, as the experience of Stalinism was to prove, only has the affect of strengthening religion’s grip.

Economic Affairs: while recognising that communism could only be established on a global scale, the programme contains general outlines of a proletarian economic policy in the area under its control: expropriation of the old ruling class, centralisation of the productive forces under the control of the soviets; mobilisation of all available labour power, using a new labour discipline founded on the principles of class solidarity; the gradual integration of independent producers into collective production. The programme also recognises the need for the working class to exert its collective management over the productive process; but it sees the instrument for achieving this not as the workers’ councils and the factory committees (which are not even mentioned in the programme), but the trade unions, which by their very nature tended to take collective control of production away from the working class and put in the hands of the state. Most crucially of all, the terrible conditions imposed by the civil war, which tended to disperse and even de-class the proletarian masses of the towns, made it increasingly difficult for the working class to control not only the factories but the state itself.

In the sphere of agriculture, there was a recognition that peasant-based production could not be collectivised overnight but would require a more or less long period of integration into the socialised sector; in the meantime the soviet power would encourage the class struggle in the countryside by giving its principal support to the poor peasants and rural semi-proletarians.

Distribution: the soviet power set itself the grandiose task of replacing trade with the purposive distribution of goods on the basis of need, to be coordinated through a network of consumer communes. And indeed, during the civil war period, the old monetary system more or less collapsed and was replaced by a system of requisitioning and rationing. But this was a product of the direst scarcity and necessity and did not really represent the advent of new communist social relations, even though it was often theorised as such. Real communisation can only be based on an ability to produce abundantly, and this can never be achieved by an isolated proletarian power.

Finance: this overoptimistic evaluation of War Communism was reflected in other areas, particularly the idea that simply combining all existing banks into a single state bank is a step towards the disappearance of banks as such. But the money system soon reappeared in Russia, having merely gone underground during the War Communism period; and so forms of money and means of storing money will persist as long as exchange relations have not been overcome by the creation of a unified human community.

Housing and public health: the proletarian power acted with considerable initiative to relieve homelessness and overcrowding, particularly through the expropriation of bourgeois, but its more far-sighted schemes to build a new urban environment were blocked by the harsh conditions of the post-insurrection period. The same applies to many of the other measures decreed by the soviet power: reduction in the working day, disability and unemployment benefit, drastic improvements in public sanitation. Here again the immediate aim was to bring Russia in line with standards already achieved by the more developed bourgeois countries; here again the new power was often prevented from bringing in real improvements because of the huge draining of resources towards the war effort.

6. 1920: Bukharin and the period of transition (International Review n°96)

As well as writing the programme of the Russian party, Bukharin wrote a theoretical study of the problems of the period of transition. Although in many respects a flawed work, certain elements of it represent a serious contribution to marxist theory, while an examination of its weaknesses also sheds light on the problems he was trying to pose.

Bukharin had been in the theoretical vanguard of the Bolshevik party during the imperialist war. His book Imperialism and World Economy paralleled Rosa Luxemburg’s investigation into the economic conditions of the new epoch of capitalist decline - The Accumulation of Capital. And Bukharin’s book was one of the first to show that the onset of this period had inaugurated a new stage in the organisation of capital – the stage of state capitalism, which he linked first and foremost to the global military struggle between imperialist nation states. In his article “Towards a theory of the imperialist state” Bukharin also adopted a very advanced position on the national question (again taking a view similar to Luxemburg’s on the impossibility of national liberation in the imperialist epoch) and on the question of the state, coming more rapidly than Lenin himself to the position defended in State and Revolution: the necessity for the destruction of the bourgeois state apparatus.

These conceptions are further developed in his Economics of the Transition Period, written in 1920. Here Bukharin reiterates the marxist view of the inevitably catastrophic and violent end of capitalist class rule, and thus of the necessity for proletarian revolution as the only basis for the construction of a new and higher mode of production. At the same time he goes more deeply into the characteristics of this new phase of capitalist decadence. He anticipates the growing tendency of senile capitalism towards the squandering and destruction of the accumulated productive forces, exemplified above all in war production, irrespective of the quantitative “growth” it may involve. He also shows how, in the conditions of state capitalism, the old workers’ parties and unions are “nationalised”, integrated into the monstrously hypertrophied machinery of the capitalist state.

In its broad lines, Bukharin’s articulation of the communist alternative to this decaying world system is perfectly clear: a world wide revolution founded on the self-activity of the working class in its new organs of combat, the soviets, a revolution aimed at welding the whole of humanity into a united world community which has replaced the blind laws of commodity production with the conscious regulation of social life.

But the means and goals of the proletarian revolution must be made concrete, and this can only be the result of living experience and reflection upon that experience. And it is here we come to the weak side of the book. Although in 1918 Bukharin was part of the Left Communist tendency in the Bolshevik party, for him this was first and foremost around the question of the Brest-Litovsk peace. Unlike other Left Communists, such as Ossinski, he was far less capable of developing a critical view of some of the early signs of the bureaucratisation of the soviet state. On the contrary, if anything, his book tended to serve as an apology for the status quo during the period of the civil war, since it was above all a theoretical justification for the measures of “War Communism” as the expression of an authentic process of communist transformation.

Thus, for Bukharin, the virtual disappearance of money and wages during the civil war – a direct result of the collapse of the capitalist economy – already signifies the overcoming of exploitation and the advent of a form of communism. In a similar way, a dire necessity imposed on the proletarian bastion in Russia - a war of fronts conducted by a Red Army – became not only a “norm” of the period of revolutionary struggles but also the model for the extension of the revolution, which has now been transformed into an epic battle between capitalist and proletarian states. On this point, the “left” Bukharin was far to the right of Lenin, who never forgot that the extension of the revolution was above all a political task and not primarily a military one.

One of the ironies of Bukharin’s book is that, having clearly identified state capitalism as the universal form of capitalist organisation in the epoch of capitalist decline, it becomes wilfully blind to the danger of state capitalism after the proletarian revolution. Under the “proletarian state”, under the system of “proletarian nationalisations”, exploitation became impossible. And by the same token, since the new state is the organic expression of the proletariat’s historic interests, there is everything to be gained by fusing all of the class organs of the workers into the state apparatus, and even by restoring the most hierarchical practices in the management of social and economic life. There is no awareness at all that the transitional state, as the expression of the need to hold together a disparate and transitory social formation, might play a conservative role and even come to detach itself from the interests of the working class.

In the period after 1921, Bukharin underwent a rapid trajectory from the left to the right of the party. But in fact there was a continuity in this evolution: a tendency to accommodate with the status quo. If ETP is an attempt to declare that the harsh regime of War Communism is already the goal of the proletariat’s strivings, it was not a huge leap a few years later to proclaim that the New Economic Policy, which gave free rein to the market forces that had merely been “displaced” in the previous phase, was already the antechamber of socialism. Bukharin even more than Stalin was the theoretician of “socialism in one country” and the precedent is already there in the absurd claims that the isolated Russian bastion of 1918-20, in which the proletariat was being decimated by civil war and increasingly subject to the growth of a new bureaucratic leviathan, was already a communist society.

7. 1920: the KAPD programme (International Review n°97)

The isolation of the revolution in Russia was to have a negative impact on the political positions of the new Communist International, which began to retreat on the clarity it had exhibited at its first Congress, not least towards the social democratic parties. Previously denounced as parties of the bourgeoisie, the CI began to formulate the tactic of the “United Front” with these same parties, partly in an attempt to widen support for the stricken Russian bastion. The rise of opportunism in the CI was vigorously opposed by the left communist currents in a number of countries, but in particular Italy and Germany.

One of the early manifestations of the rise of opportunism in the CI was Lenin’s pamphlet Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, and this text has since served as the basis for numerous distortions about the communist left, and especially about the German left in the shape of the KAPD, which was excluded from the KPD in 1920. The KAPD is accused of indulging in the “sectarian” policy trying to replace real workers’ trade unions with artificial “revolutionary unions”; it is accused above all of lapsing into anarchism in its approach to vital questions such as parliament and the role of the party.

It is true that the KAPD, which was the product of a tragic and premature rupture in the German party, was never a homogeneous organisation. It contained a number of elements who were indeed influenced by anarchism; and, in the reflux of the revolution, this influence was to give birth to the councilist ideas which largely took hold of the German communist movement. But a brief examination of the KAPD programme shows that, at its best, the KAPD represented a high point of marxist clarity:

  • as opposed to anarchism, the programme is situated in the objective historical circumstances of world capitalism: the new period of capitalist decadence opened up by the world war, and posing the alternative between socialism and barbarism;
  • as opposed to anarchism, the programme expresses without reserve its solidarity with the Russian revolution and affirms the necessity for its world-wide extension, with Germany being specifically identified as the key to this whole perspective;
  • the KAPD’s opposition to parliamentarism and the trade unions is likewise based not on any kind of timeless moralism or obsession with forms, but on an understanding of the new conditions imposed by the advent of the epoch of proletarian revolution, where parliament and the unions could henceforward only serve the class enemy;
  • the same applies to the KAPD’s advocacy of the factory organisations and the workers’ councils. These were not artificial forms dreamed up by a handful of revolutionaries, but concrete organisational expressions of the real movement of the class in the new period. Even if there could not be complete clarity about the nature of the factory organisations (which the KAPD still saw as a kind of permanent precursor of the councils, based on a minimal political programme), they were anything but an artificial product at the time, regrouping some of the most militant workers in Germany;
  • far from being anti-party, the programme (which was accompanied by theses on the role of the party in the revolution) clearly affirms the indispensable role of the party as a nucleus of communist intransigence and clarity within the general movement of the class;

In the same way, the programme defends without hesitation the marxist conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

In the practical measures it puts forward, the KAPD programme is in direct continuity with the programme of the KPD, in particular in its call for the dissolution of all parliamentary and municipal bodies and their replacement by a centralised system of workers’ councils. The 1920 programme, however, is clearer on the international tasks of the revolution, calling for example for immediate fusion with other soviet republics. It also goes further into the problem of the economic content of the revolution, emphasising the necessity to take immediate steps towards gearing production towards need (even if we can take issue with the programme’s contention that the formation of a “socialist economic bloc” with Russia alone could make significant steps towards communism). Finally, the programme raises some “new” issues not dealt with by the 1918 programme, such as the proletarian approach to art, science, education and youth, which shows that the KAPD was far from being a purely “workerist” current and was interested in all the issues posed by the communist transformation of social life.

CDW