The decadence of capitalism (viii): The age of catastrophes

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Even though revolutionaries today are far from all sharing the analysis that capitalism entered into its phase of decline with the outbreak of the First World War, this was not the case for those who had to respond to this war and who participated in the revolutionary uprisings that followed. On the contrary, as shown in this article, the majority of marxists shared this point of view. Similarly, for them, understanding the new historic period was indispensable for reinvigorating the communist programme and the tactics that flowed from it.

In the previous article in this series, we saw that Rosa Luxemburg’s analysis of the fundamental processes underlying imperialist expansion predicted the return of the calamities visited on the pre-capitalist regions of the globe to the very heart of the system, to bourgeois Europe. And as Luxemburg points out in her Junius Pamphlet (original title, “The crisis in German social democracy”), written from prison in 1915, the outbreak of the imperialist world war in 1914 was not only a catastrophe because of the destruction and the misery it rained on the working class in both belligerent camps, but also because it had been made possible by the greatest act of treason in the history of the workers’ movement: the decision of the majority of the social democratic parties, allegedly beacons of internationalism schooled in the marxist world view, to support the war effort of their respective ruling classes, to sanction the mutual massacre of the European proletariat in spite of all the ringing declarations of opposition to war passed at numerous meetings of the Second International and its constituent parties in the years leading up to 1914.

This was the death of the International, which now fragmented into its different national parties, large segments of which, most often the leading bodies, signed up as press-gang officers for their own bourgeoisie: these were known as the “social chauvinists” or “social patriots”, who also led the majority of trade unions in the same direction. In this terrible debacle, another major segment, the “centrists”, wallowed in all kinds of confusion, unable to break decisively with the social patriots, promulgating absurd illusions in the possibility of peace settlements and, as in the case of Kautsky the former “Pope of Marxism”, frequently turning away from the class struggle on the grounds that the International could only be an instrument of peace, not of war. In these traumatic times, only a minority stood firm on the principles which the entire International had adopted on paper on the eve of war – above all, the refusal to suspend the class struggle lest it endanger the war effort of your own bourgeoisie, and, by extension, the will to use the social crisis brought on by war as a means of hastening the downfall of the capitalist system. But faced with the mood of nationalist hysteria in the opening phase of the war, the “pogrom atmosphere” described in Luxemburg’s pamphlet, even the best militants of the revolutionary left also struggled with doubts and difficulties: Lenin, shown the edition of Vorwarts, the SPD newspaper, that announced the party’s vote for war credits in the Reichstag, believed at first that this was a fake cobbled together by the political police. The anti-militarist Liebknecht, in the German parliament, initially voted for war credits out of party discipline, and the following extract from a letter by Rosa Luxemburg shows the degree to which she felt that the left opposition within social democracy had been reduced to a small collection of inchoate individuals: 

I want to undertake the sharpest possible action against the activities of the (Reichstag) delegates. Unfortunately I get little co-operation from my (collection of) incoherent personalities…Karl (Liebknecht) can’t ever be got hold of, since he dashes about like a cloud in the sky; Franz (Mehring) has little sympathy for any but literary campaigns. Clara (Zetkin’s) reaction is hysteria and the blackest despair. But in spite of all this I intend to try to see what can be achieved”.[1]

Among the anarchists, there was also confusion and outright betrayal. The venerable anarchist Kropotkin called for the defence of French civilisation against German militarism. Those that followed his line became known as the anarcho-trenchists, and the lure of patriotism proved particularly strong in the case of the syndicalist CGT in France. But anarchism, precisely because of its heterogeneous character, was not shaken to the roots in the same way as the “marxist party”. Numerous anarchist militants and groups continued to defend the same internationalist positions as they had before.[2]

Imperialism: capitalism in decay

Patently, a work of reorganisation and regroupment faced the groups of the former social democratic left, in order to carry on the basic work of propaganda and agitation in the teeth of nationalist frenzy and state repression. But what was required above all was a theoretical reassessment, a rigorous effort to understand how the war had swept away so many long-held assumptions of the movement. Not least because it was necessary to tear away the “socialist” wrapping in which the traitors disguised their patriotism, using the words of Marx and Engels, carefully selected and above all taken out of their historical context, to justify the position of national defence – above all in Germany, where there had been a long tradition of the marxist current supporting national movements against the reactionary threat posed by Russian Tsarism.

The necessity for a thorough-going theoretical inquiry was symbolised by Lenin quietly spending his time reading Hegel in the Zurich library at the start of the war. In an article recently published in The Commune, Kevin Anderson from the Marxist-Humanist Committee in the US argues that his studies of Hegel led Lenin to conclude that the majority of marxists in the Second International, including his mentor Plekhanov (and by extension himself) had not broken from vulgar materialism, and that their ignorance of Hegel meant that they had little grasp of the real dialectic of history.[3] And of course one of Hegel’s underlying dialectical principles is that what is rational in one epoch becomes irrational in another. Certainly, this is the method Lenin used to answer the social chauvinists – Plekhanov in particular – who tried to justify their support for the war by referring to the writings of Marx and Engels:

The Russian social-chauvinists (headed by Plekhanov), make references to Marx’s tactics in the war of 1870; the German (of the type of Lensch, David and Co.) to Engels’ statement in 1891 that in the event of war against Russia and France combined, it would be the duty of the German Socialists to defend their fatherland…All these references are outrageous distortions of the views of Marx and Engels in the interest of the bourgeoisie and the opportunists…Anyone who today refers to Marx’s attitude towards the wars of the epoch of the progressive bourgeoisie and forgets Marx’s statement that ‘the workingmen have no country’, a statement that applies precisely to the period of the reactionary and outmoded bourgeoisie, to the epoch of the socialist revolution, is shamelessly distorting Marx, and is substituting the bourgeois point of view for the socialist.[4]

Here was the key: capitalism had become a reactionary system, as Marx had predicted it would. The war had proved it and this meant a complete reappraisal of all the old tactics of the movement, a clear understanding of the characteristics of capitalism in its crisis of old age, and thus of the new conditions confronting the class struggle. Among the left fractions, this basic analysis of the evolution of capitalism was universal. Luxemburg’s Junius Pamphlet, on the basis of the profound investigation into the phenomenon of imperialism in the period leading up to the war, took up Engels’ announcement that humanity would be faced by the choice between socialism and barbarism and declared that this was no longer a prospect for the future but an immediate reality: as she put it, “this war is barbarism”. In the same work, Luxemburg argued that in an epoch of unbridled imperialist war, the old strategy of support for certain national movements had lost all progressive content: “In the era of the unleashing of this imperialism, national wars are no longer possible. ‘National interests’ serve only as the pretext for putting the labouring masses of the people under the domination of their mortal class enemy, imperialism.”

Trotsky, writing in Nashe Slovo, was moving in a parallel direction, arguing that the war was a sign that the nation state itself had become a barrier to further human progress:The nation state has outgrown itself – as a framework for the development of the productive forces, as a basis for class struggle, and especially as the state form of the dictatorship of the proletariat.[5]

In a more famous work, Imperialism: the Highest Stage of Capitalism, Lenin, like Luxemburg, recognised that the bloody conflict between the world’s great powers expressed the fact that these powers had now divided up the entire globe between them, and that henceforth the imperialist cake could only be re-divided through the violent settling of scores between imperialist ogres: “the characteristic feature of the period under review is the final partitioning of the globe—final, not in the sense that repartition is impossible; on the contrary, repartitions are possible and inevitable but in the sense that the colonial policy of the capitalist countries has completedthe seizure of the unoccupied territories on our planet. For the first time the world is completely divided up, so that in the future only re-division is possible, i.e., territories can only pass from one ‘owner’ to another, instead of passing as ownerless territory to an owner.[6]

In the same work, Lenin characterises the “highest stage” of capitalism as one of “parasitism and decay”, or as “moribund capitalism”. Parasitic, because – particularly in the case of Britain – he saw a tendency for the productive contribution to global wealth by the industrialised nations to be replaced by a growing reliance on finance capital and super-profits sucked out of the colonies (a vision that can certainly be criticised, but did contain an element of intuition, as witness today’s blossoming of financial speculation and the advancing de-industrialisation of some of the most powerful nations). Decay (by which Lenin did not mean an absolute stagnation in growth) because capitalism’s tendency to do away with free competition in favour of monopoly signified the increasing need for bourgeois society to cede its place to a higher mode of production.

Lenin’s Imperialism suffers from a number of weaknesses. Its definition of imperialism is more a description of some its outward manifestations (the “five defining characteristics” so often cited by leftists to prove that such and such a nation or bloc of nations is not imperialist) than an attempt to go to the roots of the phenomenon in the accumulation process as Luxemburg had done. Its vision of an advanced capitalist centre living parasitically off the super-profits from the colonies (and thus bribing a fringe of the working class, the “labour aristocracy”, to support its imperialist projects), left a large gap for the penetration of nationalist ideology in the form of support for the “national liberation” movements in the colonies. Furthermore the monopoly phase (in the sense of giant private combines) had already, above all during the course of the war, ceded to an even “higher” expression of capitalist decay: the enormous growth of state capitalism.

On this last point, the most the important contribution was surely made by Bukharin, who was one of the first to show that in the era of the “imperialist state” the entirety of social, economic and political life was being swallowed up by the state apparatus, above all for the purpose of waging war with rival imperialisms: 

In total contrast to the state in the epoch of industrial capitalism, the imperialist state is characterised by an extraordinary increase in the complexity of its functions and by an impetuous incursion into the economic life of society. It reveals a tendency to take over the whole productive sphere and the whole sphere of commodity circulation. Intermediate types of mixed enterprises will be replaced by pure state regulation, for in this way the centralisation process can advance further. All the members of the ruling classes (or, more accurately, of the ruling class, for finance capitalism gradually eliminates the different subgroups of the ruling classes, uniting them in a single finance-capitalist clique) become shareholders, or partners in a gigantic state-enterprise. From being the preserver and defender of exploitation, the state is transformed into a single, centralised, exploiting organisation that is confronted directly by the proletariat, the object of exploitation. In the same way as market prices are determined by the state, the workers are assigned a ration sufficient for the preservation of labour power. A hierarchically constructed bureaucracy fulfils the organising functions in complete accord with the military authorities, whose significance and power steadily grow. The national economy is absorbed into the state, which is constructed in a military fashion and has at its disposal an enormous, disciplined army and navy. In their struggle the workers must confront all the might of this monstrous apparatus, for their every advance will be aimed directly against the state: the economic and the political struggle cease to be two categories, and the revolt against exploitation will signify a direct revolt against the state organisation of the bourgeoisie.[7]

Totalitarian state capitalism and the war economy were certainly to prove fundamental characteristics of the ensuing century. Given the omnipresence of this capitalist monster, Bukharin rightly concludes that henceforward every significant workers’ struggle has no choice but to confront the state and that the only way forward for the proletariat was to “explode” this entire apparatus – to destroy the bourgeois state and replace it with its own organs of power. This signified the definitive rejection of all presuppositions about peacefully conquering the existing state, which Marx and Engels had not entirely rejected, even after the experience of the Commune, and which had increasingly become the orthodox position of the Second International. Pannekoek had initially take up this position in 1912, and when Bukharin reiterated it, to begin with Lenin angrily accused Bukharin of lapsing into anarchism; but in the very process of elaborating his reply, and driven by the necessity to understand the unfolding revolution in Russia, Lenin was again gripped by the ever-evolving dialectic and came to the conclusion that Pannekoek and Bukharin had been right – a conclusion formulated in The State and Revolution, written on the eve of the October insurrection.

In Bukharin’s Imperialism and World Economy (1917) there is also an attempt to locate the drive towards imperialist expansion in the economic contradictions identified by Marx, emphasising the pressure exerted by the fall in the rate of profit but also recognising the need for the constant extension of the market. Like Luxemburg and Lenin, Bukharin’s aim is to demonstrate that, precisely because the process of imperialist “globalisation” had created a unified world economy, capitalism had fulfilled its historic mission and could henceforward only go into decline. This was entirely consistent with the perspective outlined by Marx when he wrote that “the proper task of bourgeois society is the creation of the world market, at least in outline, and of the production based on that market.[8]

Thus, against the social chauvinists and the centrists who wanted to go back to the status quo ante bellum, who distorted marxism to justify support for one or other of the belligerent camps, the genuine marxists unanimously affirmed that there was no more progressive capitalism and that therefore its revolutionary overthrow was now on the historical agenda.

The epoch of proletarian revolution

The same fundamental question of the historic period was posed again in Russia in 1917, the culminating point of a mounting international wave of proletarian resistance to the war. As the Russian working class, organised in soviets, increasingly discovered that getting rid of the Tsar had solved none of their fundamental problems, the right wing and centrist fractions of the social democracy campaigned with all their resources against the Bolshevik call for proletarian revolution and for the soviet counter-power to settle scores not just with the old Tsarist elements but also with the entire Russian bourgeoisie, which claimed February as its legitimate revolution. In this they were supported theoretically by the Mensheviks who trotted out Marx’s writings to show that socialism could only be constructed on the basis of a fully developed capitalist system: since Russia was far too backward for that, it obviously could not go beyond the phase of a democratic, bourgeois revolution, and the Bolsheviks were just a band of adventurists seeking to play historical leap-frog. The answer provided by Lenin in the April Theses was once again consistent with his reading of Hegel, who had always stressed the necessity to see the movement of history as a totality; at the same time it reflected his deep commitment to internationalism. It is certainly true, of course, that the conditions for revolution have to mature historically, but the advent of a new historical epoch cannot be judged on the basis of examining this or that country alone. Capitalism, as the theory of imperialism showed, was a global system, and therefore its decline and the necessity for its overthrow also ripened on a global scale: the outbreak of world imperialist war was ample proof of this. There was no Russian revolution in isolation: a proletarian insurrection in Russia could only be the first step towards an international revolution, or as Lenin put it in his bombshell of a speech to the workers and soldiers who had come to greet him at the Finland Station in Petrograd upon his return from exile: “Dear comrades, soldiers, sailors and workers. I am happy to greet in you the victorious Russian revolution, to greet you as the advance guard of the international proletarian army… The hour is not far when, at the summons of our comrade Karl Liebknecht, the people will turn their weapons against their capitalist exploiters…The Russian revolution achieved by you has opened a new epoch. Long live the worldwide socialist revolution![9]

This understanding that capitalism had, at one and the same moment, fulfilled the necessary historic conditions for the advent of socialism and entered into a historic crisis of senility – since these are only two sides of the same coin – was encapsulated in the well-known phrase from the platform of the Communist International, drawn up at its First Congress in March 1919: “A new epoch is born! The epoch of the break-up of capitalism, of its internal collapse. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat”.

When the revolutionary, internationalist left came together at the CI’s First Congress, the revolutionary tumult unleashed by October was at its highpoint. Although the “Spartacist” uprising in Berlin in January had been crushed and Luxemburg and Liebknecht had been cruelly murdered, the Hungarian soviet republic had just been formed; Europe and parts of the US and South America were being gripped by mass strikes. The revolutionary enthusiasm of the hour was expressed in the basic texts adopted by the Congress. In line with Rosa’s speech to the founding congress of the KPD, the dawn of the new epoch meant that the old separation between minimum and maximum programme was no longer valid; consequently, the work of organising inside capitalism through trade union activity and participation in parliament to fight for meaningful reforms had lost its underlying raison d’être. The historic crisis of the world capitalist system, expressed not only by the imperialist war but also by the economic and social chaos left in its wake, meant that the direct struggle for power, organised in soviets, was now realistically and indeed urgently on the agenda; and this programme of action was valid in all countries, including the colonies and semi-colonies. Moreover, the adoption of this new, maximum programme could only come about via a complete break with the organisations which had “represented” the working class during the previous epoch but which had betrayed its interests as soon as the test of history was applied – the test of war and revolution in 1914-17. The social democratic reformists, the trade union bureaucracy, were now defined as servants of capital, not the right wing of the workers’ movement. The debates at the First Congress show that the early International was open to the most daring conclusions drawn from the direct experience of revolutionary combat. Although the experience in Russia had followed a somewhat different path, the Bolsheviks listened seriously to the testimony of delegates from Germany, Switzerland, Finland, the US, UK and elsewhere, arguing that the trade unions were no longer merely useless but had become a direct and counter-revolutionary obstacle – cogs in the state apparatus, and that workers were increasingly organising outside and against them through the council form of organisation in the factories and the streets. And since the class struggle was precisely focused in the workplaces and on the streets, these living centres of class struggle and class consciousness appeared, in the official documents of the CI, starkly contrasted with the empty shell of parliament, an instrument which, again, was not simply irrelevant in the struggle for proletarian revolution but also a direct weapon of the ruling class, used to sabotage the power of the workers’ councils, as had been clearly demonstrated both in Russia in 1917 and in Germany in 1918. Similarly, the Manifesto of the CI came very near to echoing Luxemburg’s view that national struggles had had their day and the newly arising nations had become mere pawns of competing imperialist interests. At this point these “extreme” revolutionary conclusions seemed to the majority to flow logically from the dawning of the new epoch.[10]

The debates at the Third Congress

When history accelerates, as was the case from 1914, a year or two can see the most dramatic changes. By the time the CI came together for its Third Congress in June/July 1921, the hope of an immediate extension to the revolution, so vigorous at the First Congress, had suffered the most severe blows. Russia had been through three years of exhausting civil war, and although the Red forces had defeated the Whites militarily, the political price was deadly: decimation of a large part of the most class conscious workers, increasing bureaucratisation of the “revolutionary” state to the point that the soviets had effectively lost control of it. The rigours of “War Communism” and the destructive excesses of the Red Terror had finally provoked open revolt in the working class: in March massive strikes broke out in Petrograd, followed by the armed uprising of the Kronstadt sailors and workers, who called for the renaissance of the soviets and an end to the militarisation of labour and the repressive actions of the Cheka. But the Bolshevik leadership, incarcerated in the state, could only see this movement as an expression of the White counter-revolution and suppressed it ruthlessly and bloodily. All this was an expression of the growing isolation of the Russian bastion. Defeat had followed defeat: the Hungarian and Bavarian soviet republics, the general strikes in Winnipeg and Seattle, Red Clydeside, the Italian factory occupations, the Ruhr uprising in Germany and many other mass movements. 

Increasingly aware of their isolation, the party clinging to power in Russia, and other Communist parties outside it, began to resort to desperate measures to spread the revolution, such as the Red Army advance into Poland, and the March Action in Germany in March 1921 – both of them failed attempts to force the pace of the revolution without the massive development of class consciousness and organisation needed for a real assumption of working class power. Meanwhile the capitalist system, though bled white by the war and still exhibiting the symptoms of a deep economic crisis, succeeded in stabilising itself economically and socially, partly the result of the new role being played by the USA as the world’s industrial powerhouse and creditor.

Within the Communist International, the Second Congress in 1920 had already reflected the impact of these preceding defeats. This was symbolised by the publication of Lenin’s Left wing communism, an infantile disorder, which was distributed at the Congress.[11] Instead of opening out to the living experience of the world proletariat, the Bolshevik experience – or a particular version of it – was now presented as a universal model. The Bolsheviks had achieved a certain degree of success in the Duma after 1905, hence the tactic of “revolutionary parliamentarism” was valid everywhere; the trade unions in Russia had been recently formed and had not lost all signs of proletarian life…hence communists in all countries were to do whatever was necessary to stay in the reactionary trade unions and fight to conquer them from the corrupt bureaucrats. Along with the codification of these trade union and parliamentary tactics, put forward in firm opposition to the left communist currents who rejected them, came the call to build up the Communist parties as mass parties, largely through incorporating bodies like the USPD in Germany and the Socialist Party in Italy (PSI).

1921 saw a further evidence of a slide towards opportunism, the sacrificing of principles and long-term goals in favour of short-term success and numerical growth. Instead of the clear denunciation of the social democratic parties as agents of the bourgeoisie, we now had the sophism of the “open letter” addressed to these parties, aimed at “forcing the leaders to fight” or, failing that, at exposing them to their working class membership. In short, the adoption of a politics of manoeuvring in which the masses are somehow to be tricked into becoming class conscious. These tactics were shortly to be followed by the proclamation of the “United Front” tactic and the even more unprincipled slogan of the “Workers’ Government”, a kind of parliamentary coalition between the social democrats and the Communists. Behind all this search for influence at any cost lay the need for the “Soviet” state to hold out in a hostile capitalist world, to find a modus vivendi with world capitalism, even if it meant returning to the practice of secret diplomacy so roundly condemned by the Soviet power in 1917 (in 1922, the “Soviet” state signed a secret agreement with Germany, even supplying it with weapons that would be used to shoot down Communist workers a year later). All this indicated an accelerating trajectory away from the struggle for revolution and towards incorporation into the capitalist status quo – not yet definitive, but indicating the path of degeneration that was to culminate in the victory of the Stalinist counter-revolution.

This didn’t mean that all clarity and all serious debate about the historical period disappeared. On the contrary, the reaction by the “left wing communists” to this opportunist course was to base their arguments even more solidly on the view that capitalism had entered a new period: the KAPD programme of 1920 thus begins with the proclamation that capitalism was experiencing its historic crisis, confronting the proletariat with the choice between socialism and barbarism;[12] in the same year the Italian left’s arguments against parliamentarism depart from the premise that while campaigning in parliamentary elections had been valid in the previous era, the advent of a revolutionary epoch invalidated the old practice. But even from the “official” voices of the CI there was still a genuine attempt to understand the characteristics and consequences of the new era.

The report and theses on the world situation, delivered by Trotsky at the Third Congress in June/July 1921, offered a very lucid analysis of the mechanisms resorted to by a profoundly ailing capitalism to ensure its survival in the new period – not least, the flight into credit and fictitious capital. Analysing the first signs of a post-war recovery, Trotsky’s “Report on the World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Communist International” posed the question as follows:

How explain these facts and the boom itself? In the first place, by economic causes: after the war international connections were resumed, even though in an extremely abridged form, and there was a universal demand for every type of merchandise. Secondly, by political-financial causes: the European governments were in mortal fear of the crisis that had to follow the war and they resorted to any and all measures to sustain during the period of demobilisation the artificial boom created by the war. The governments continued to put in circulation great quantities of paper currency, floated new loans, regulated profits, wages and bread prices, thus subsidising the earnings of demobilised workers by dipping into the basic national funds, and thus creating an artificial economic revival in the country. Thus, throughout this interval, fictitious capital continued to distend, especially in those countries where industry continued to slump.”

Capitalism’s whole life since that time has only confirmed this diagnosis of a system which can only keep itself afloat by violating its own economic laws. These texts also sought to deepen the understanding that, without a proletarian revolution, capitalism would certainly unleash new and even more destructive wars (even if its deduction of an impending clash between the old power of Britain and the rising power of the USA was wide of the mark, though not altogether without foundation). But the most important clarification contained in these and other documents was the conclusion that the advent of the new period did not mean that decline, open economic crisis and revolution were all simultaneous, an ambiguity that could be seen in the original “a new epoch is born” formulation of 1919, which could be interpreted to mean that capitalism had simultaneously entered a “final” economic crisis and an uninterrupted phase of revolutionary conflicts. This advance in understanding is perhaps most clearly expressed in Trotsky’s text “The Main Lesson of the Third Congress”, written in June 1921. It began as follows:

Classes are rooted in production. Classes remain viable so long they can fulfil a necessary role in the process of social organisation of labour. Classes begin losing the ground under their feet when the conditions necessary for their further existence come into contradiction with the growth of productive forces, i.e., with the further development of economy. Such is the situation in which the bourgeoisie finds itself at the present time.

But this does not at all mean that a class, which has lost its living roots and has become parasitic, is by this very reason doomed to instantaneous death. While economy constitutes the foundation of class rule, the respective classes maintain themselves in power by means of the state – political apparatuses and organs, namely: army, police, party, courts, press, etc., etc. With the aid of these organs, which in relation to the economic foundation represent a ‘superstructure’, the ruling class may perpetuate itself in power for years and decades after it has become a direct brake upon the social development. If such a situation endures too long, an outlived ruling class can drag down with it those countries and peoples over whom it rules…

A purely mechanical conception of the proletarian revolution – which proceeds from the fact that capitalist economy continues to decay – has led certain groups of comrades to construe theories which are false to the core: the false theory of an initiating minority which by its heroism shatters ‘the wall of universal passivity’ of the proletariat. The false theory of uninterrupted offensives conducted by the proletarian vanguard, as a ‘new method’ of struggle; the false theory of partial battles which are waged by applying the methods of armed insurrection. And so forth and so on. The clearest exponent of this tendency is the Vienna journal Communism. It is absolutely self-evident that tactical theories of this sort have nothing in common with Marxism.”

Thus the onset of decline did not preclude recoveries at the economic level, or retreats by the proletariat. Of course, no one could see how decisive the defeats of 1919-21 had already been, but there was a burning need to clarify what to do now, faced with an epoch but not an immediate moment of revolution. A separate text, the “Theses on Tactics” adopted by the Congress,quite correctly put forward the need for the communist parties to take part in defensive struggles in order to build up the confidence and self-awareness of the working class; and this, together with the recognition that decline and revolution were by no means synonymous, was a necessary rebuttal of the “theory of the offensive” which had largely justified the semi-putschist approach of the March Action. This theory – that, given the ripeness of the objective conditions, the communist party had to wage a more or less permanent, insurrectionary offensive to push the masses into action – was held mainly by the left inside the German KPD, by Bela Kun and others – and not, as is often wrongly claimed, by the Communist Left properly speaking, even if the KAPD and those around it were not always clear on this point.[13]

In this respect the interventions of the KAPD delegations at the Third Congress are extremely instructive. Belying the label of “sectarian” in the Theses on Tactics, the KAPD’s attitude at the Congress was a model of how a responsible minority should behave in a proletarian organisation. Despite being frustratingly restricted in the times accorded to its interventions, and despite having to put up with interruptions and sarcasms from supporters of the official line, the KAPD saw itself as fully part of the proceedings and its delegates were very willing to recognise points of agreement where they did exist; they were not at all interested in stressing differences for their own sake, which is the essence of the sectarian attitude.[14] For example, in the discussion on the world situation, a number of the KAPD delegates agreed with many points of Trotsky’s analysis, notably the notion that capitalism was now reconstructing economically and regaining control at the social level: thus Seeman stressed the capacity of the international bourgeoisie to temporarily set aside its inter-imperialist rivalries in order to deal with the proletarian danger, especially in Germany.

The implication here – especially given that Trotsky’s report and theses on the world situation were to a large extent framed as a rebuttal to the partisans of the “theory of the offensive” – is that the KAPD was neither arguing that there could be no further stabilisation of capital, nor that the struggle now had to be an offensive one at any moment. And indeed this point of view was expressed in an explicit manner in a number of interventions.

Sachs, in his reply to Trotsky’s presentation on the world economic situation, put it thus: “We certainly saw yesterday in detail how comrade Trotsky – and everyone here will, I think, be in agreement with him – presented the relationship between on the one hand the small crises and short periods of cyclical and momentary revivals, and, on the other hand, the problem of the rise and decline of capitalism seen in great historical periods. We all agree that the large curve which was formerly going upwards is now irresistibly heading downwards, and that within this broad curve, there will still be oscillations within this general descent.[15]

Thus, whatever ambiguities may have existed in the KAPD’s view of the “mortal crisis”, it did not consider that the onset of decadence meant a sudden and definitive collapse of capitalism’s economic life.

By the same token, Hempel’s intervention on the tactics of the International clearly refuted the charge that the “sectarian” KAPD rejected defensive struggles and demanded the offensive at every moment: “We now come to the question of partial actions. We say that we do not reject any partial action. We say: each action, each combat, because that’s what an action is, has to be pushed forward. We cannot say: we reject this combat here or there. The combat is born from the economic needs of the working class; and it has to be pushed forward by all possible means. Precisely in countries like Germany and Britain, all the countries of bourgeois democracy which have been subjected to bourgeois democracy and all its effects for 40 or 50 years, the working class has to become used to struggles. The slogans have to correspond to the partial actions. Let’s take an example: in an enterprise, or different enterprises, a strike breaks out, it is limited to a particular area. The slogan cannot be: struggle for the dictatorship of the proletariat. That would be absurd. The slogans have to be adapted to the balance of forces, to what can be expected in a given situation”.[16]

But behind many of these interventions was the KAPD’s insistence that the CI was not going deep enough in its understanding that a new period in the life of capitalism and thus in the class struggle had opened up. Sachs, for example, having agreed with Trotsky on the possibility of temporary recoveries, argued that “what was not expressed in these theses.was precisely the fundamentally different character of this epoch of decline compared to the previous epoch of rising capitalism seen as a totality[17]and that this had implications for the way that capitalism would survive henceforth: “Capital is reconstructing its power by destroying the economy[18] a prescient vision of how capitalism would continue as a system in the ensuing century. Hempel, in the discussion on tactics, draws out the implications of the new period with regard to the political positions that communists had to put forward, particularly on the trade union and parliamentary questions on tactics. In contrast to the anarchists, with whom the KAPD has often been assimilated, Hempel insists that the use of parliament and trade unions had been correct in the previous period: “if we recall the tasks of the old workers’ movement, or more precisely, the workers’ movement prior to the epoch of the eruption of the revolution, its task, on the one hand, thanks to the political organisations of the working class, the parties, was to send delegates to parliament and the institutions which the bourgeoisie and the bureaucracy had left open to representatives of the working class. This was one of its tasks. This led to advantages at the time and it was correct. For their part the economic organisations of the working class had the task of improving the situation of the proletariat within capitalism, to push for the struggle and to negotiate when the struggle ended…such were the tasks of workers’ organisations before the war. But the revolution arrived, and other tasks came to light. Workers’ organisations could no longer be limited to the struggle for wage increases or pose as their main aim representing the working class in parliament in order to extract improvements there”;[19] and furthermore, “we have constantly had the experience that the all the workers’ organisations which stayed on this path, despite their revolutionary speeches, unmasked themselves in the decisive struggles”,[20] and this is why the working class needed to create new organisations, capable of expressing the necessity for proletarian self-organisation and the direct confrontation with the state and capital; this was true both for small defensive strikes and wider mass struggles. Elsewhere, Bergmann defines unions as part of the state and hence it was illusory to try to conquer them: “we are fundamentally of the opinion that we have to break out of the old unions. Not because we have a thirst for destruction, but because we see that these organisations have really become, in the worst sense of the term, organs of the capitalist state to repress the revolution.[21] In similar vein, Sachs criticised both the regression towards the notion of the mass party and the tactic of the open letter to the social democratic parties – these were regressions either towards outmoded social democratic practices and forms of organisation, or worse still, towards the social democratic parties themselves which had passed to the enemy.


History is generally written by the winners, or at least by those who appear to be the winners. In the years that followed the Third Congress, the official Communist Parties remained as large organisations that could command the loyalty of millions of workers; the KAPD soon fragmented into a number of components, few of which maintained the clarity expressed by its representatives in Moscow in 1921. Now genuinely sectarian errors came to the fore, particularly in the hasty decision of the KAPD’s Essen tendency around Gorter to set up a “Fourth International” (the KAI or Communist Workers’ International), when what was needed in a phase of retreat in the revolution was the development of an international fraction to fight against the degeneration of the Third. This premature writing-off of the Communist International was logically accompanied by an about-turn on the proletarian nature of the October revolution, increasingly rejected as bourgeois. Equally sectarian was the view of the Schröder tendency in the KAI that in the epoch of the “death crisis”, wage struggles were opportunist; other currents began to question the very possibility of a proletarian political party, giving birth to what became known as “councilism”. But these manifestations of a more general weakening and fragmentation of the revolutionary avant-garde were products of the mounting defeat and counter-revolution; at the same time, the maintenance, in this period, of the CPs as influential mass organisations was also a product of the bourgeois counter-revolution, but with the terrible peculiarity that these parties had put themselves in its vanguard along with the fascist and democratic butchers. On the other hand, the clearest positions of the KAPD and Italian left, products of the highest moment of the revolution and solidly anchored in the theory of capitalism’s decline, did not disappear, largely thanks to the patient work of small and often painfully isolated groups of revolutionaries; when the mists of the counter-revolution cleared, these positions found new life in the emergence of a new generation of revolutionaries, and they remain as fundamental acquisitions on which the next party of the revolution must be built.




[1]. Letter to Konstantin Zetkin, end of 1914, cited in Peter Nettle, Rosa Luxemburg, OUP, 1969.

[2]. It would however be of interest to inquire further into possible contemporary attempts, within the anarchist movement, to analyse the historical significance of the war. 

[3]. Lenin’s Encounter with Hegel after Eighty Years: A Critical Assessment“,

[4]. Lenin, Socialism and War, 1915. Collected Works, Vol. 21.

[5]. Nashe Slovo, 4 February 1916.

[6]. Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism, VI, “Division of the world among the great powers”. Collected Works, Vol.22.)

[7]. “Toward a theory of the imperialist state”, 1915.

[8]. Marx to Engels, 8 October 1858, Collected Works, Vol. 40, p.347, Lawrence and Wishart.

[9]. Cited in Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, Volume one, “The Overthrow of Tzarism”, Chapter XV, “The Bolsheviks and Lenin, p. 296. Pathfinder 1980.

[10]. For further elaboration of these discussions at the First Congress see the article in International Review n° 123 “The theory of decadence at the heart of historical materialism, part v” (

[11]. We should note that this text did not go without responses or critiques, particularly from Gorter in his Open Letter to Comrade Lenin.

[12] . “The world economic crisis, born from the world war, with its monstrous social and economic effects which produce the thunderstruck impression of a field of ruins of colossal dimensions, can only signify one thing: the Twilight of the Gods of the bourgeois-capitalist world order is nigh. Today, it is not a question of the periodic economic crises which were once a part of the capitalist mode of production; it is the crisis of capitalism itself; we are witnessing convulsive spasms of the whole of the social organism, formidable outbursts of class antagonisms of an unprecedented pitch, general misery for wide layers of populations: all this is a fateful warning to bourgeois society. It appears more and more clearly that the ever-growing antagonism between exploiters and exploited, that the contradiction between capital and labour, the consciousness of which is becoming more widespread even among those previously apathetic layers of the proletariat, cannot be resolved. Capitalism is experiencing its definitive failure, it has plunged itself into the abyss in a war of imperialist robbery; it has created a chaos whose unbearable prolongation places the proletariat in front of the historic alternative: relapse into barbarism or construction of a socialist world.

[13]. For example: the opening paragraph of the KAPD programme, quoted in a previous footnote, could easily be interpreted as describing a final and definitive crisis of capitalism; and with regard to the danger of putschism, some of the KAPD’s activities during the March Action certainly fall into this category, as for example in its uncritical alliance with the VKPD, in the use of its unemployed members to try to literally bludgeon workers to join the general strike, and in its ambiguous relationship to the “independent” armed forces led by Max Hoelz and others. See also Hempel’s intervention at the 3rd Congress (La Gauche Allemande, p.41), which recognises that the March Action could not have overthrown capitalism but also insists that it was necessary to raise the slogan of the overthrow of the government – a position which seems to lack consistency, since for the KAPD there was no question of advocating any kind of hybrid “Workers’ Government” short of the proletarian dictatorship. (Note: An English translation of the KAPD’s interventions at the Congress has been published on “Interventions by the KAPD at the 3rd Congress of the Communist International (1921), parts 1-5”).

[14]. Hempel’s attitude towards the anarchists and syndicalists was also devoid of the sectarian spirit, emphasising the need to work with the genuinely revolutionary expressions of this current (see La Gauche Allemande, pp.44-45).

[15]. La Gauche Allemande, Invariance, 1973, p.21.

[16]. La Gauche Allemande, p.40.

[17]. Ibid, p.21

[18]. Ibid, p.22.

[19].  Ibid, p.33.

[20]. Ibid, p.34.

[21]. Ibid, p.56.