International Review 2010s : 140 - 163

Index of International Reviews for the decade 2010

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2010 - 140 to 143

Index of International Reviews published in 2010.

International Review no.140 - 1st quarter 2010

Index of International Review 140.

Copenhagen Summit: Save the planet? No, they can't!

"Copenhagen ends in failure" (Guardian, UK) "Fiasco in Copenhagen", "Grotesque conclusion", "Worse than useless" (Financial Times, UK), "A worthless summit" (The Asian Age, India), "A cold shower", "The worst agreement in history" (Liberation, France)... The international press is nearly unanimous[1] that this supposedly historic summit was a catastrophe. In the end the participatory countries signed an accord in the form of a vague promise for the future, which guaranteed nothing and committed no one: reducing warming to 2°C in 2050. "The failure of Copenhagen is even worse than one could imagine" according to Herton Escobar, the science specialist of the daily O Estado De Sao Paulo (Brazil), "The greatest diplomatic event in history didn't produce the least commitment".[2] All those who had believed in a miracle, the birth of "green capitalism", have seen their illusions melt away like a glacier in the Arctic or Antarctic.

An international summit to calm fears

The Copenhagen summit was preceded by an immense publicity campaign. The media barrage was orchestrated on an international scale. All the television channels, newspapers and magazines made this event an historic moment. There is no shortage of examples.

From the 5th June 2009 the documentary film by Yann Arthus Bertrand, Home, a dramatic and implacable exposition of the scale of the world ecological catastrophe, was shown simultaneously and without charge in 70 countries (on television, internet, and in the cinemas).

Hundreds of intellectuals and ecological associations have issued pompous declarations to "raise consciousness" and "bring popular pressure to bear on the politicians". In France the Nicolas Hulot foundation launched an ultimatum: "The future of the planet and with it, the fate of a billion starving people... is at stake in Copenhagen. Either solidarity or chaos: humanity has the choice". In the United States the same urgent message was delivered: "The nations of the world meet in Copenhagen from 7 to 18 December 2009 for a conference on climate that has been called the last chance. It's all or nothing, make or break, literally, sink or swim. In fact it's the most important diplomatic meeting in the history of the world."[3]

The day of the opening of the summit, 56 newspapers in 45 countries took the unprecedented initiative of speaking with a single voice from one and the same editorial: "Unless we unite to act decisively climate change will ravage our planet [...] Climate change [...] will have indelible consequences and our chances of controlling it will be played out in the next 14 days. We call on the representatives of the 192 countries meeting in Copenhagen not to hesitate, not to quarrel or blame each other [...] Climate change affects the whole world and must be resolved by the whole world."[4]

These declarations are half true. Scientific research shows that the planet is indeed in the process of being ravaged. Global warming is worsening, and with it, desertification, fires, cyclones... Species are disappearing rapidly with pollution and the intensive exploitation of resources. 15 to 37% of biodiversity will be lost from now till 2050. Today one in 4 mammals, one in 8 birds, a third of amphibians and 70% of plants are in danger of extinction.[5] According to the World Humanity Forum climate change will lead to the death of 300,000 people a year (half from malnutrition)! In 2050 there will be "250 million climatic refugees".[6] Well, yes, it is urgent. Humanity is confronted with a vital historic challenge!

Conversely the other half of the message is a great lie designed to delude the world proletariat. It calls for the responsibility of governments and international solidarity faced with climate danger, as if states were able to forget or overcome their national interests to unite and cooperate in the interests of the well being of humanity. This is a lullaby to reassure a working class worried about the ongoing destruction of the planet and the suffering of hundreds of millions of people.[7] The environmental catastrophe clearly shows that only an international solution can work. To prevent workers thinking too much by themselves about a solution, the bourgeoisie wants to pretend that it is capable of putting aside national divisions and, according to the international editorial of 56 newspapers, of "not getting lost in quarrels", "not blaming each other" and understanding that "climate change affects the whole world and must be resolved by the whole world".

The least one can say is that this objective has completely failed. If Copenhagen has shown anything it is that capitalism can only produce hot air.

Moreover there was no illusion to create, nothing good could emerge from this summit. Capitalism has always destroyed the environment. In the 19th century, London was an immense factory spewing smoke and the Thames became a sewer. The only goal of this system is to produce profit and accumulate capital by any means. It hardly matters that in order to do so it must burn forests, pillage the oceans, pollute rivers and unbalance the climate... Capitalism and ecology are mutually antagonistic. All the international meetings, the committees, the summits (like Rio de Janeiro in 1992 or Kyoto in 1997) have always been fig leaves, theatrical ceremonies to make us think that the "great and the good" are concerned with the future of the planet. The Nicolas Hulots, Yann Arthus Bertrands, Bill McKibbens and Al Gores[8] want to make us think that it will be different this time, that faced with the urgency of the situation, the leaders will come to their senses. While all these ideologues wave their arms in the air, these same leaders brandish their eco...nomic weapons! This is the reality: capitalism is divided into nations, competing one against the other, waging an unceasing commercial and if necessary military war.

A single example. The North Pole is disappearing. The scientists see a veritable ecological catastrophe: rise in sea levels, changes in salination and alteration of currents, destabilisation of infrastructures and erosion of coasts following the melting of glaciers, the liberation of CO2 and methane from defrosted soil, degradation of arctic eco-systems.[9] Capitalist states see this as an opportunity to exploit the resources made newly available and open new sea routes free from ice. Russia, Canada, the United States, Denmark (via Greenland) are presently waging an implacable diplomatic war, including the use of military intimidation. Thus, last August, "Some 700 members of the Canadian Forces, from the army, navy and air force, participated in the pan-Canadian operation NANOOK 09. The exercise was designed to prove that Canada is capable of asserting its sovereignty in the Arctic, a region contested by the US, Denmark, and above all Russia, whose recent tactics like the sending of planes or submarines has irritated Ottawa". [10] Since 2007 Russia has regularly sent combat aircraft to overfly the Arctic and sometimes Canadian waters as it did during the Cold War.

Capitalism and ecology are indeed always antagonistic!

The bourgeoisie can no longer even save appearances

"The failure of Copenhagen" is thus anything but a surprise. We said in International Review n° 138: "World capitalism is totally incapable of the degree of international co-operation necessary to address the ecological threat. Especially in the period of social decomposition, with the disappearance of economic blocs, and a growing tendency for each nation to play its own card on the international arena, in the competition of each against all, such co-operation is impossible."[11] It is more surprising, by contrast, that all the heads of state didn't even succeed in saving appearances. Usually a final agreement is signed with great ceremony, phoney objectives are proclaimed and everybody is happy. This time, it was officially a "historic failure". The tensions and bartering have emerged from the corridors and taken centre stage. Even the traditional photo of national leaders, arm in arm with smiles of self-congratulation, was not taken. Which says it all!

This failure is so patent, ridiculous and shameful that the bourgeoisie must keep a low profile. The noisy preparations for the Copenhagen Summit have been succeeded by a deafening silence. Thus, just after the international meeting, the media contented themselves with a few discreet lines reporting the failure (while systematically blaming other nations for it) then carefully avoiding this dirty history in the following days.

Why, unusually, did the national leaders not succeed in making it seem a success? In two words: the economic crisis.

Contrary to what has been claimed everywhere recently, the gravity of the present recession is not pushing the heads of state into "the adventure of the green economy". On the contrary the brutality of the crisis stirs up tensions and international competition. The Copenhagen Summit revealed the war that has been unleashed among the great powers. It is no longer the time to appear cooperative and to proclaim accords (even phoney ones). The knives are out. Too bad about the photo!

Since summer 2007 and the fall of the world economy into the most serious recession in the history of capitalism, there is a growing temptation to listen to the sirens of protectionism. There is a growth of every man for himself. Obviously it has always been in capitalism's nature to be divided into nations that devote themselves to implacable economic war. But the 1929 Crash and the crisis of the 30s revealed to the bourgeoisie the danger of a total absence of rules and international coordination for world commerce. In particular, after the Second World War the blocs of east and west organised themselves internally and constructed a minimum framework of economic relations. Extreme protectionism, for example, was everywhere recognised as damaging to world commerce and therefore to every nation. Accords such as Bretton Woods in 1944 and institutions policing the new rules like the International Monetary Fund have lessened the effects of economic slowdown that hit capitalism after 1967.

But the seriousness of the present crisis has weakened all these rules of functioning. The bourgeoisie has certainly tried to react in a unified fashion, organising the G20 in Pittsburgh and London, but the spirit of everyone for themselves has repeatedly reasserted itself. The plans for recovery are less and less coordinated between nation states and so the economic war is becoming more aggressive. The Copenhagen Summit strikingly confirms this tendency.

Contrary to all the lies about a light at the end of the tunnel and recovery of the world economy the recession continues to deepen and even accelerate anew at the end of 2009. "Dubai: the bankruptcy of the Emirate", "Greece is on the edge of bankruptcy"[12] - such news has been like a thunderclap. Each national state senses that its economy is in danger and is conscious that the future will bring an increasingly profound recession. To prevent the capitalist economy from sinking too rapidly into a depression, the bourgeoisie has had no other choice since summer 2007 than to create money on a massive scale in order to pay the public and budgetary deficits. Thus, as a report titled "Worst-case debt scenario" published in November 2009 by the bank Société Générale says: "The worst could be in front of us... state rescue packages over the last year have merely transferred private liabilities onto sagging sovereign shoulders, creating a fresh set of problems. First among them the deficit... High public debt looks entirely unsustainable in the long run. We have almost reached a point of no return for government debt".[13] Global indebtedness is much too high in most of the developed countries in relation to their GDP. In the United States and the European Union public debt in two years time will represent 125% of GDP. In the United Kingdom it will reach 105% and in Japan 270% (according to the report). Société Generale is not the only one to sound the alarm. In March 2009 Credit Suisse drew up a list of the 10 countries most threatened by bankruptcy by comparing deficits with GDP. For the moment this top ten comprises, in order, Iceland, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Greece, Spain, Latvia, Rumania, Great Britain, the United States, Ireland and Hungary.[14] Another proof of the concern is on the financial markets where a new acronym has appeared: the PIGS. "Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain are going to shake the world. After Iceland and Dubai, these four overindebted countries of the euro zone are considered as possible time bombs of the world economy."[15]

In reality, all nation states, faced with their debt mountains must react with new austerity policies. Concretely that means:

develop a very strong fiscal pressure (raising taxes);

diminish expenses still more drastically by suppressing tens or hundreds of thousands of public sector jobs, reducing pensions, unemployment pay, welfare and health costs in a draconian way;

and, evidently, carry out a more and more aggressive commercial policy on the world market.

In short, this disastrous economic situation exacerbates competition. Each country today is disinclined to accept the least concession; it wages a battle royal against other bourgeoisies to survive. It was this tension, this economic war that was played out at Copenhagen.

Ecological quotas are economic weapons

At Copenhagen all the countries came, not to save the planet, but to defend themselves by hook or by crook. Their only goal was to use "ecology" to adopt rules which advantaged them while disadvantaging their rivals.

The United States and China were accused, by the majority of the other countries, of being mainly at fault for the failure. They both refused to fix any figure for the lowering of CO2 emissions, which are the main cause of climate warming. But the two greatest polluters on the planet have the most to lose.[16] "If the objectives of the IPCC[17] are retained [a lowering of CO2 by 40% by 2050] in 2050 every person in the world must emit only 1.7 tonnes of CO2 per year. Now each American produces about 20 tonnes!"[18] As for China its industry is almost entirely derived from coal that "creates 20% of the world emissions of CO2. That is more than all transport combined: cars, lorries, trains, boats and planes."[19] So one can understand why all the other countries tried so hard to "fix objective figures" for the lowering of CO2!

But the United States and China by no means made common cause. The Middle Empire had, on the contrary demanded a lowering by 40% of CO2 emissions by 2050...for the United States and Europe, while claiming that it should naturally be omitted because it was an "emerging country". "Emerging countries, notably India and China, demanded that the rich countries make a strong reduction of greenhouse gases but refused themselves to be subject to objective constraints".[20]

India used almost the same strategy: a lowering for others but not for itself. It justified its policy by the fact that "it sheltered hundreds of millions of poor and so the country could hardly be expected to make major efforts". The "emerging countries" or "developing countries", often presented in the press as the first victims of the Copenhagen fiasco, have not hesitated to use the misery of their populations to defend their bourgeois interests. The Sudanese delegate, who represented Africa, compared the situation to that of the holocaust. "It is a solution founded on the values that sent 6 million people to the gas ovens in Europe."[21] These leaders, who starve their population and who sometimes even massacre them, dare today to invoke their suffering. In Sudan for example, millions of people are being massacred today with weapons; there's no need to wait for the climate to do it in the future.

And Europe, she who plays at being the lady of good virtue, how does she defend "the future of the planet"? Let's take several examples. The French president Nicolas Sarkozy made a thunderous declaration on the last-but-one day of the summit, "If we continue like this, it's failure. [...] all of us, we must make compromises [...] Europe and the rich countries, we must recognise that our responsibility is greater than the others. Our commitment must be stronger. [...] Who will dare to say that Africa and the poorer countries do not need money? [...] Who will dare say that you don't need a body to compare respect for the commitments of each?"[22] Behind these great tirades hides a more sinister reality. The French state and Nicolas Sarkozy were fighting for a lower target for CO2 emissions and, above all, for unlimited nuclear power, that vital resource of the French economy. This energy also carries a heavy weight of menace, like a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity. The accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power station caused between 4,000 and 200,000 deaths according to estimates (depending on whether the victims of cancers caused by radiation are included).  With the economic crisis, in the decades to come, states will less and less have the means to maintain nuclear power stations, and accidents will become more and more probable. And today, nuclear power pollutes massively. The French state wants us to believe that radioactive waste is treated "carefully" at La Hague when in fact to economise it exports a large part of it to Russia: "nearly 13% of the radioactive material produced by our nuclear industry sits somewhere at the end of Siberia. To be exact, in the atomic complex of Tomsk-7, a secret city of 30,000 inhabitants forbidden to journalists. There, each year since the middle of the 1990s, 108 tons of depleted uranium from French nuclear power stations has come, in containers, put aside in a huge parking lot under the open sky."[23] Another example. The countries of Northern Europe have the reputation of being at the leading edge of ecology, real little models. And yet, as far as the struggle against deforestation is concerned... "Sweden, Finland, or Austria did everything to prevent change."[24] The reason? Their energy production is extremely dependent on wood and they are huge exporters of paper. Sweden, Finland and Austria were therefore to be found at Copenhagen on the side of China which, itself, as the world's biggest producer of wooden furniture, did not want to hear any more talk of some limit to deforestation. This is not just a detail: "Deforestation is in effect responsible for a fifth of global emissions of CO2." [25]  and "The destruction of the forests weighs heavily in the climatic balance [...] Around 13 million hectares of forest are cut down every year, the equivalent of the area of England, and it is this massive deforestation which makes Indonesia and Brazil the third and fourth largest emitters of CO2 on the planet."[26] These three European countries, officially living proof that a green capitalist economy is possible (sic!), "saw themselves awarded the prize of Fossil of the Day[27] during the first day of the negotiations for their refusal to accept their responsibility concerning the conversion of forested land."[28]

The country that sums up all the bourgeois cynicism which surrounds "ecology" is Russia. For months, the country of Putin has cried loud and strong that it is favourable to an agreement on targets for CO2 emissions. This position is a little surprising when one knows the state of nature in Russia. Siberia is polluted by radioactivity. Its nuclear weapons (bombs, submarines...) rust in graveyards. Will the Russian state show any remorse? "Russia presents itself as a model nation on the subject of CO2 emissions. But this is nothing but a conjuring trick. Here's why. In November, Dimitri Medvedev [the Russian president] was engaged in reducing Russian emissions by 20% by 2020 (from a base in 1990[29]), more than the European Union. But there was only one constraint since, in reality, Russian emissions had already reduced by... 33% since 1990 because of the collapse of Russian GNP after the fall of the Soviet Union. In effect, Moscow wants the power to emit more CO2 in the years to come in order to not curb its growth (if this returns). The other countries are not going to accept this position easily."[30]

Capitalism will never be "green". Tomorrow, the economic crisis will hit even harder. The fate of the planet will be the last worry of the bourgeoisie. It will look out for only one thing: to support its national economy, while confronting other countries with ever increasing force; in shutting down less profitable factories, even if it means leaving them to rot; lowering production costs; cutting maintenance budgets for factories and power stations (nuclear or coal-fired), which will also mean more pollution and industrial accidents. This is the future capitalism has in store: a profound economic crisis, a polluted and deteriorating infrastructure, and growing suffering for humanity.

It is time to destroy capitalism before it destroys the planet and decimates humanity!

Pawel (6 January 2010)




[1]. Only American and Chinese papers conjured up a "success", a "step forward". We will say why a little later.


[3]. Bill McKibben, American writer and militant in the magazine Mother Jones.




[7]. This is not to exclude the fact that a great many intellectuals and responsible ecological organisations themselves believe in the history they have invented.  This is very possibly the case.

[8]. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for his struggle against global warming with his documentary "An Inconvenient Truth"!



[11] "The myth of the ‘green economy'".  Third quarter 2009.

[12]. Liberation, 27 November and 9 December 2009. The list has only grown since the end of 2008 and beginning of 2009 when Iceland, Bulgaria, Lithuania and Estonia were already dubbed "bankrupt states ".

[13]. Report made public by the British Daily Telegraph, 18 November 2009. (

[14]. Source:

[15]. Le nouvel Observateur, French magazine, from 3rd to 9th December.

[16]. Hence the cry of victory from the American and Chinese press (highlighted in our introduction), for whom the absence of an agreement is a "step forward".  .

[17]. The group of inter-governmental experts on the evolution of the climate.

[18]. Le nouvel Observateur , 3 to 9 December (special Copenhagen issue).

[19]. Idem.


[21]. Les Echos, 19 December 2009.

[22]. Le Monde, 17 December 2009.

[23]. "Nos déchets nucléaires sont cachés en Sibérie", Libération, 12 Octobre 2009.

[24]. Euronews (European television channel), 15 December 2009 (


[26]. La Tribune (French daily), 19 December 2009 (

[27]. This prize is awarded by a group of 500 environmental NGOs and "rewards" individuals or states which, to use a euphemism, "drag their feet" in the struggle against global warming.  During the week of Copenhagen, almost every country earned the right to their Fossil of the Day (

[28]. Le Soir (Belgian daily), 10 December 2009 (

[29]. 1990 is the reference year for greenhouse gas emissions for all countries since the Kyoto Protocol. 

[30]. Le nouvel Observateur from 3rd to 9th December 2009.

General and theoretical questions: 

Recent and ongoing: 

Immigration and the workers’ movement

As the global economic crisis and social decomposition worsen, living conditions throughout the world, particularly in the underdeveloped countries, become increasingly intolerable. The accumulated effects of economic deprivation, natural catastrophes, warfare and ethnic cleansing, famine, and outright barbarism have become stark everyday reality for millions of people, dramatically increasing pressures for mass migration. Millions flee towards the capitalist metropoles, or even other underdeveloped countries that are in slightly better straits, in order to survive and to find more bearable conditions.

The United Nations estimates that there are as many as 200 million immigrants - approximately three percent of the world's population - living outside their home country, double the number in 1980. In the United States, there are 33 million foreign-born residents, approximately 11.7 percent of the population; in Germany 10.1 million, 12.3 percent; in France 6.4 million, 10.7 percent; in the United Kingdom 5.8 million, 9.7 percent; in Spain 4.8 million, 8.5 percent; in Italy 2.5 million, 4.3 percent; in Switzerland 1.7 million, 22.9 percent; and in the Netherlands 1.6 million.[1] Bourgeois government and media sources estimate that there are more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the US, and more than 8 million in the European Union. In this context, immigration has emerged as a hot button political issue throughout the capitalist metropoles and even within the Third World itself, as the anti-immigrant riots in South Africa last year demonstrate. 

While it varies from country to country in its details, the bourgeoisie's attitude towards mass migration generally follows a three-faceted pattern: 1) encouraging immigration for economic and political reasons; 2) simultaneously restricting it and trying to control it, and 3) orchestrating ideological campaigns to stir up racism and xenophobia against immigrants in order to divide the working class against itself.

Encouraging immigration. The ruling class relies upon immigrant workers, legal and illegal, to fill low paid jobs that are not attractive to native workers, to serve as a reserve army of unemployed and underemployed workers to depress wages for the entire working class and to fill workforce shortages created by aging populations and declining native birth rates. In the US, the ruling class is abundantly aware that entire industries, such as retail, construction, meat and poultry processing, janitorial services, hotels, restaurants, and home health and child care, rely heavily on immigrant labor, both legal and illegal. This is why the demands by the far right for the deportation of 12 million illegal immigrants and the curtailment of legal immigration in no way represents a rational policy alternative for the dominant fraction of the American ruling class, and has been rejected as irrational, impractical, and harmful to the American economy.  

Restricting and controlling. At the same time, the dominant fraction recognizes a need to resolve the status of undocumented immigrants to alleviate a multitude of social, economic and political problems, including the availability and delivery of medical, social, educational and other public services, as well as a variety of legal questions pertaining to the American-born children of immigrants and their property. This was the backdrop to the proposed immigration reform in spring 2007 in the US, which was supported by the Bush administration and the Republican leadership, the Democrats (including the left personified by the late senator Edward Kennedy), and major corporations. Far from being a pro-immigrant law, the legislation called for the militarization and tightening of the border, the legalization of illegal immigrants already in the country, and measures to control and restrict the future flow of immigrants. While it provided a means for illegal immigrants currently in the country to legalize their status, it was in a no way an "amnesty," as it included time delays and huge fines.  

Ideological campaigns. Anti-immigrant propaganda campaigns vary from country to country, but the central message is remarkably similar, targeting primarily "Latinos" in the US and Muslims in Europe, with the allegation that recent immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, are responsible for worsening economic and social conditions faced by the native working class, by taking jobs, depressing wages, overcrowding schools with their children, draining social welfare programs, increasing crime, and just about any other social woe you can think of. This is a classic example of capitalism's strategy of "divide and rule", to divide workers against themselves, to blame each other for their problems, to fight over the crumbs, rather than to understand that it is the capitalist system itself that is responsible for their suffering. This serves to undermine the working class's ability to regain its consciousness of its class identity and unity, which is feared most of all by the bourgeoisie. Most typically the division of labor within the bourgeoisie assigns the rightwing to stir up and exploit anti-immigrant sentiment in all the capitalist metropoles with varying degrees of success, resonating within certain sectors of the proletariat, but nowhere else has it reached the barbaric level exemplified by the xenophobic riots against immigrants in South Africa in May 2008.   

Worsening conditions in the underdeveloped countries in the years ahead, including not only the effects of decomposition and war, but also climate change, will mean that the immigration question is likely to increase in significance in the future. It is crucial that the workers' movement is clear about the meaning of the immigration phenomenon, the strategy of the bourgeoisie with regard to immigration in terms of its policies and its ideological campaigns, and the proletarian perspective on this question. In this article, we will examine the role of population migration in capitalist history, the history of the immigration question within the workers' movement, the immigration policy of the bourgeoisie, and an orientation for revolutionary intervention in regard to immigration.

Immigration and capitalist development

Migration has been a central characteristic of human populations from the very beginnings of human history, driven largely by the need to survive in the face of difficult conditions. For example, anatomically modern humans, homo sapiens, developed  in Africa about 160,000 to 200,000 years ago, and  are believed to have begun a series of migrations out of Africa towards Asia and Europe  150,000 to 50,000 years ago, driven by unstable climatic and environmental conditions linked to various ice ages.   The subsequent property relations of slave society and feudalism tied humans to the land, but even under these modes of production, populations migrated, conquering new areas, overcoming indigenous populations. As with other questions confronting the working class, it useful to analyze the question of immigration in the context of the ascendancy and decadence of capitalism.

 In the ascendant period, capitalism placed tremendous importance on the mobility of the working class as a factor in the development of its mode of production. Under feudalism the toiling population was bound to the land, hardly moving throughout their lives. By expropriating the agricultural producers, capitalism obliged large populations to move from the countryside to the towns, to sell their labor power, providing a much needed pool of labor. As World Revolution n° 300 noted in "The working class is a class of immigrants", "In the early history of capitalism, its period of ‘primitive accumulation', the first wage laborers had their ties with feudal masters severed and ‘great masses of men are suddenly and forcibly torn from their means of subsistence, and hurled onto the labor market as free, unprotected and rightless proletarians. The expropriation of the agricultural producer, of the peasant, from the soil is the basis of the whole process' (Marx, Capital Vol.1, Ch. 26)." As Lenin put it, "Capitalism necessarily creates mobility of the population, something not required by previous systems of social economy and impossible under them on anything like a large scale".[2] As ascendancy progressed, mass migration was critically important for the development of capitalism in its period of industrialization. The movement and relocation of masses of workers to where capital needed them was essential. From 1848 to 1914, 50 million people left Europe, the overwhelming majority settling in the United States. Twenty million migrated from Europe to the US between 1900 and 1914 alone. In 1900 the US population was approximately 75 million and in 1914 it was approximately 94 million; which means that in 1914 more than one in five was a recently arrived immigrant - not counting immigrants arriving before 1900. If the children of immigrants who were born in the US are included in the count, then the impact of immigrants on social life is even more significant. During this period the US bourgeoisie essentially followed a policy completely open to immigration (with the exception of restrictions on Asian immigrants). For the immigrant workers who uprooted themselves, the motivation was the opportunity to improve their standard of living, to escape the effects of poverty and famine, oppression, and limited opportunity.

While it pursued a policy of encouraging immigration, the bourgeoisie did not hesitate at the same time to use ideological campaigns of xenophobia and racism as a means to divide the working class against itself. So called "native workers" - some of whom were themselves only second or third generation descendants of immigrants were pitted against newcomers, who were denounced because of their linguistic, cultural, and religious differences. Even between newly arrived immigrant groups ethnic antagonisms were employed as fodder for the "divide and rule" strategy. It is important to remember that the fear and mistrust of outsiders has deep-seated psychological roots in society, and that capitalism has not hesitated to exploit this phenomenon for its own nefarious purposes. The bourgeoisie, especially in the U.S, has used this tactic of "divide and rule" to undermine the historic tendency towards class unity and to better subjugate the proletariat. Engels noted in a letter to Schlüter in 1892 that the American "bourgeoisie knows much better even than the Austrian Government how to play off one nationality against the other: Jews, Italians, Bohemians, etc., against Germans and Irish, and each one against the other..."[3] It is a classic ideological weapon of the enemy class.

Whereas immigration in the period of capitalist ascendance was largely fueled by the need to satisfy the labor force requirements of a rapidly expanding, historically progressive mode of production, in decadence, with the slowing down of exponential growth rates, the motivation for immigration came from more negative factors. The pressure to escape persecution, famine and poverty, which motivated millions of workers in the ascendant period to migrate in search of work and an improved standard of living, inevitably increased in the decadent period at a higher level of urgency. The changing characteristics of modern warfare in decadence in particular gave new impetus to mass migration and the flood of refugees. In ascendance wars were limited primarily to the conflict between professional armies on the battlefields. With the onset of decadence the nature of war changed dramatically, involving the mobilization of the entire population and economic apparatus of the national capital. This consequently made terrorization and demoralization of the civilian population a primary tactical objective, and contributed to massive refugee migrations of the 20th and now the 21st centuries. During the current war in Iraq, for example, an estimated two million people have become refugees, seeking safety primarily in Jordan and Syria. Immigrants fleeing the increasingly barbaric conditions in their home countries are further victimized along the way by corrupt police and military, mafias and criminals, who extort them, brutalize them, and rob them in their desperate journey to a hoped-for better life. Many of them die or disappear along the way and some of them fall into the hands of human traffickers. Remarkably the forces of capitalist law and order appear incapable or unwilling to do anything to alleviate these social evils that accompany mass migration in the current period.

In the US, decadence was accompanied by an abrupt change from a wide open immigration policy (except for the long-standing restrictions on Asian immigrants) to highly restrictive governmental immigration policies. With the change in economic period, there was indeed less need for a continuing massive influx of labor. But this was not the only reason to further restrict immigration; racist and "anti-communist" factors were equally present.  The National Origins Act enacted in 1924 limited the number of immigrants from Europe to 150,000 persons per year, and allocated the quota for each country on the basis of the ethnic makeup of the US population in 1890 - before the massive waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe arrived in the US. Targeting of eastern European immigrant workers in this manner was in part attributable to racism against "undesirable" elements like Italians, Greeks, Eastern Europeans, and Jews. During the period of the "Red Hysteria" in the US following the Russian Revolution, working class immigrants from Eastern Europe were regarded as likely to include a disproportionate number of "Bolsheviks" and those from Southern Europe, anarchists. In addition to restricting the flow of immigrants, the 1924 law created for the first time in the US the concept of the non-immigrant foreign worker - who could come to America to work but was barred from staying.

In 1950, the McCarran-Walter Act, heavily influenced by McCarthyism and the anti-communist hysteria of the Cold War, imposed new limits on immigration under cover of the struggle against Russian imperialism.  In the late 1960's, with the onset of the open crisis of world capitalism, US immigration policy was liberalized, increasing the flow of immigrants into the US, not only from Europe, but Asia and Latin America,  reflecting in part American capitalism's desire to match the European powers' success in tapping their former colonial countries for talented, skilled intellectual workers, such as scientists, medical doctors, nurses and other professions - the so-called "brain drain" from the underdeveloped countries - and to provide low-paid agricultural workers. The unintended consequence of the liberalization measures was a dramatic increase in illegal as well as legal immigration, particularly from Latin America.

In 1986, America's anti-immigrant policy was updated with enactment of the Simpson-Rodino Immigration and Naturalization Control Reform Act, which dealt with the influx of illegal immigrants from Latin America by imposing, for the first time in American history, sanctions (fines and even prison) against employers who knowingly employed undocumented workers. The influx of illegal immigrants had been heightened by the economic collapse of Third World countries during the 1970s, which triggered a wave of impoverished masses fleeing destitution in Mexico, Haiti, and war-ravaged El Salvador. The enormity of this uncontroled upsurge could be seen in the arrests of a record 1.6 million illegal immigrants in 1986 by US immigration police.

On the level of ideological campaigns, the use of the divide and rule strategy in regard to immigration, already utilized as a tactical weapon against the proletariat during the ascendance of capitalism, has been elevated to new heights in the period of capitalist decadence. Immigrants are blamed for flooding the metropoles, for cutting and depressing wages, for being the cause of epidemics of crime and cultural "pollution", overcrowding in schools, overburdening social programs - every imaginable social problem. This tactic has not been limited solely to the US, but has also been used in Britain, France, Germany and throughout Europe, where immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and the Middle East are scapegoated for the social ills of crisis-ridden, decomposing capitalism in remarkably similar ideological campaigns, demonstrating in this way that mass immigration is a manifestation of the global economic crisis and worsening social decomposition in less developed countries. All of this is done in order to throw up obstacles to block the development and spread of class consciousness within the working class, to try to hoodwink workers to prevent them from understanding that it is capitalism which creates war, economic crisis, and the full range of social problems characteristic of social decomposition.   

The social impact of worsening decomposition and attendant crises including the growth of the ecological crisis will undoubtedly drive millions of refugees towards the developed countries in the years ahead. While these sudden, massive population shifts are handled differently by the bourgeoisie to routine immigration, they are still dealt with in a manner that reflects the basic inhumanity of capitalist society. Refugees are often herded into refugee camps, segregated from the surrounding society, and only slowly released and integrated, sometimes over many years, treated more as prisoners and undesirables than as fellow members of the human community. Such an attitude stands in stark contrast to the internationalist solidarity that would clearly be the proletarian perspective.

Historical position of the workers' movement on immigration

Confronting the existence of ethnic, racial, and linguistic differences between workers, the workers' movement has historically been guided by the principle that "workers have no country," a principle that has influenced both the internal life of the revolutionary workers' movement and the intervention of that movement in the class struggle.  Any compromise on this principle represents a capitulation to bourgeois ideology.

So for example, in 1847 the German members of the Communist League in exile in London, though primarily concerned with propaganda work amongst German workers, adhered to an internationalist outlook and "maintained close relations with political fugitives from all manner of countries."[4] In Brussels, the League "held an international banquet to demonstrate the fraternal feelings harbored by the workers of each country for the workers of other countries...One hundred and twenty workers attended this banquet including Belgians, Germans, Swiss, Frenchman, Poles, Italians and one Russian."[5]  Twenty years later, the same preoccupation prompted the First International to intervene in strikes with two central aims: to prevent the bourgeoisie from importing foreign strike-breakers and to provide direct support to the strikers, as they did in strikes by sieve-makers, tailors and basket makers in London and bronze workers in Paris.[6]   When the economic crisis of 1866 prompted a wave of strikes throughout Europe, the General Council of the International "supported the strikers with advice and assistance, and it mobilized the international solidarity of the proletariat in their favor. In this way the International deprived the capitalist class of a very effective weapon, and employers were no longer able to check the militancy of their workers by importing cheap foreign labor. Where its influence was felt it sought to convince the workers that their own interests demanded that should support the wage struggles of their foreign comrades."[7] Similarly in 1871 when a movement for a nine hour workday arose in Britain, organized by the Nine Hour League, not the trade unions who remained aloof from the struggle, the First International supported the struggle by sending representatives to Belgium and Denmark "to prevent the agents of the employers recruiting strike-breakers there, a task which they performed with a considerable degree of success."[8]

The most significant exception to this internationalist position occurred in 1870-71 in the US, where the American section of the International opposed the immigration of Chinese workers to the US because they were used by capitalists to depress wages for white workers. A delegate from California complained that "the Chinese have driven out of employment thousands of white men, women, girls and boys." This position reflected a distorted interpretation of Marx's critique of Asiatic despotism as an anachronistic mode of production, whose dominance in Asia had to be overturned in order to integrate the Asian continent into modern productive relations, which would lead to the development of a modern proletariat in Asia. That Chinese laborers weren't yet proletarianized and were therefore susceptible to manipulation and super-exploitation by the bourgeoisie unfortunately became, not an impetus to extend solidarity and an effort to integrate them into the larger American working class, but a rationalization for racial exclusion.

In any case, the struggle for unity of the international working class continued in the Second International. A little over a hundred years ago at the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International in 1907, an attempt by the opportunists to support the restriction of Chinese and Japanese immigration by bourgeois governments was overwhelmingly defeated. Opposition was so great that the opportunists were actually forced to withdraw the resolution. Instead the Congress adopted an anti-exclusionist position for the workers' movement in all countries. In reporting on this Congress, Lenin wrote, "There was an attempt to defend narrow, craft interests, to ban the immigration of workers from backward countries (coolies-from China, etc.). This is the same spirit of aristocratism that one finds among workers in some of the ‘civilized' countries, who derive certain advantages from their privileged position, and are therefore, inclined to forget the need for international solidarity. But no one at the Congress defended this craft and petty-bourgeois narrow-mindedness. The resolution fully meets the needs of revolutionary Social Democracy."[9]

In the US, the opportunists attempted at the 1908, 1910 and 1912 Socialist Party congresses to push through resolutions to evade the decision of the Stuttgart Congress and voiced support for the American Federation of Labor's opposition to immigrants. But they were beaten back every time by comrades advocating international solidarity for all workers. One delegate admonished the opportunists that for the working class "there are no foreigners." Others insisted that the workers' movement must not join with capitalists against groups of workers. In a 1915 letter to the Socialist Propaganda League (the predecessor of the left wing of the Socialist Party that went on to found the Communist and Communist Labor parties in the US) Lenin wrote, "In our struggle for true internationalism and against ‘jingo-socialism' we always quote in our press the example of the opportunist leaders of the S.P. in America who are in favor of restrictions of Chinese and Japanese workers (especially after the Congress of Stuttgart, 1907 and against the decisions of Stuttgart). We think that one cannot be internationalist and at the same time in favor of such restrictions."[10]

Historically, immigrants have always played an important role in the workers' movement in the US. The first Marxist revolutionaries came to the US after the failure of the 1848 revolution in Germany and later constituted vital links to the European center of the First International. Engels introduced certain problematic conceptions regarding immigrants into the socialist movement in the US which, while accurate in certain aspects, were erroneous in others, some of which ultimately led to a negative impact on the organizational activities of the American revolutionary movement. Engels was concerned about the initial slowness of the working class movement to develop in the US. He understood that certain specificities in the American situation were involved, including the lack of a feudal tradition with a strong class system, and the existence of the frontier which served as a safety valve for the bourgeoisie, allowing discontented workers to escape from a proletarian existence to become a farmer or homesteader in the west. Another was the gulf between native and immigrant workers, in terms of economic opportunities and the inability of radicalized immigrant workers to communicate with native workers. For example, when he criticized the German socialist émigrés in America for not learning English, he wrote that "they will have to doff every remnant of their foreign garb. They will have to become out-and-out Americans. They cannot expect the Americans to come to them; they the minority, and the immigrants, must go to the Americans, who are the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all learn English."[11] It was true that there was a tendency for German immigrant revolutionaries to confine themselves to theoretical work in the 1880's and to disdain mass work with native, English-speaking workers, that led to Engels' comments. It was also true that the immigrant-led revolutionary movement did indeed have to open outward to English-speaking American workers, but the emphasis on Americanization of the movement  implicit in these remarks proved to have  disastrous consequences for the workers' movement, as it eventually pushed the most politically and theoretically developed and experienced workers into secondary roles, and put leadership in the hands of poorly formed militants, whose primary qualification was being a native, English-speaker. After the Russian Revolution, this same policy was pursued by the Communist International with even more disastrous consequences for the early Communist Party. Moscow's insistence that native American-born militants be placed in leadership positions catapulted opportunists and careerists like William Z. Foster to leadership positions, cast Eastern European revolutionaries with left communist leanings totally outside the leadership, and accelerated the triumph of Stalinism in the US party.

Similarly, another remark by Engels is also problematic: that the "great obstacle in America, it seems to me, lies in the exceptional position of the native workers... [The native working class] has developed and has also to a great extent organized itself on trade union lines. But it still takes up an aristocratic attitude and wherever possible leaves the ordinary badly paid occupations to the immigrants, of whom only a small section enter the aristocratic trades".[12] Though it accurately described how native and immigrant workers were effectively divided against each other, it implied wrongly that it was the native workers and not the bourgeoisie that were responsible for the gulf between different segments of the working class. Though this comment described the segmentation in the white immigrant working class, the new leftists in the 1960's interpreted it as a basis for the "white skin privilege theory."[13]

In any case, the history of the class struggle in the US itself disproved Engels' view that Americanization of immigrant workers was a precondition for building a strong socialist movement in the US. Class solidarity and unity across ethnic and linguistic roles was a central characteristic of the workers movement at the turn of the 20th century. The socialist parties in the US had a foreign language press that published dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in different languages.  In 1912, the Socialist Party published 5 English and 8 foreign language daily newspapers, 262 English and 36 foreign weekly newspapers, and 10 English and 2 foreign news monthlies in the US, and this does not include the Socialist Labor Party publications. The Socialist Party had 31 foreign language federations within it: Armenian, Bohemian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Greek, Hispanic, Hungarian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Jewish, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Scandinavian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovenian, South Slavic, Spanish, Swedish, Ukrainian and Yugoslav. These federations comprised a majority of the organization. The majority of the members of the Communist and Communist Labor Parties founded in 1919 were immigrants. Similarly the growth in Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) membership in the period before World War I came disproportionately from immigrants, and even the western IWW, which had a large "native" membership, had thousands of Slavs, Chicanos, and Scandinavians in their ranks.

The most famous IWW struggle, the Lawrence textile workers' strike of 1912, demonstrated the capacity for solidarity between immigrant and non-immigrant workers. Lawrence was a mill town in Massachusetts where workers laboured under deplorable conditions. Half the workers were teenage girls between 14 and 18 years of age. Skilled craft workers tended to be English speaking workers of English, Irish, and German ancestry. The unskilled workers included French-Canadian, Italian, Slavic, Hungarian, Portuguese, Syrian and Polish immigrants. A wage cut imposed at one of the mills prompted a strike by Polish women weavers, which quickly spread to 20,000 workers. A strike committee, organized under the leadership of the IWW, included two representatives from each ethnic group and demanded a 15 percent wage increase and no reprisals for strikers. Strike meetings were translated into twenty-five languages. When the authorities responded with violent repression, the strike committee launched a campaign by sending several hundred children of the striking workers to stay with working class sympathizers in New York City. When a second trainload of 100 children was being sent to worker sympathizers in New Jersey, the authorities attacked the children and their mothers, beating them and arresting them in front of national press coverage, which resulted in a national outpouring of solidarity. A similar tactic, sending the children of striking immigrant silk workers in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1913 to stay with "strike mothers" in other cities was also used by the IWW and again demonstrated class solidarity across ethnic barriers.

As World War I unfolded, the role of émigrés and immigrants in the leftwing of the socialist movement was particularly important. For example, on 14 January 1917, the day after he arrived in New York, Trotsky participated in a meeting at the Brooklyn home of Ludwig Lore, a German immigrant, to plan a "program of action" for the left forces in the American socialist movement.  Also participating were Bukharin, who was already a US resident working as editor for Novy Mir, organ of the Russian Socialist Federation; several other Russian émigrés; S.J. Rutgers, a Dutch revolutionary who was a collaborator of Pannekoek's, and Sen Katayama, a Japanese émigré. According to eyewitness accounts, the discussion was dominated by the Russians with Bukharin arguing that the left should immediately split from the Socialist Party and Trotsky that the left should remain within the Party for the moment but should advance its critique by publishing an independent bi-monthly organ, which was the position adopted by the meeting. Had he not returned to Russia after the February Revolution, Trotsky would likely have served as leader of the leftwing of the American movement.[14] The co-existence of many languages was not an obstacle to the movement; on the contrary it was a reflection of its strength. At one mass rally in 1917, Trotsky addressed the crowd in Russian and others in German, Finnish, English, Latvian, Yiddish and Lithuanian.[15]

Bourgeois theorisation of anti-immigrant ideology

Bourgeois ideologists insist that today the characteristics of mass migration towards Europe and the US are totally different than in previous periods of history.  Behind this is the idea that today immigrants are weakening, even destroying the societies that receive them, refusing to integrate into their new societies, and rejecting their political institutions and culture. In Europe, Walter Laqueur's The Last Days of Europe: Epitaph for an Old Continent makes the case that Muslim immigration is responsible for European decline. The central thesis argued by the bourgeois political scientist Samuel P. Huntington of Harvard University in his 2004 book, Who Are We: the Challenges to America's Identity is that Latin American, especially Mexican, immigrants who have arrived in the US in the last three decades are much less likely to speak English than earlier generations of immigrants coming from Europe because they all speak a common language, are concentrated in the same areas in segregated Spanish-speaking enclaves, are less interested in linguistically and culturally assimilating themselves and are encouraged not to learn English by activists who foment identity politics. Huntington further claims that the "bifurcation" of American society along white/black racial lines that has existed for generations is now threatened to be replaced by a cultural bifurcation between Spanish-speaking immigrants and native English speakers that puts American national identity and culture in the balance. 

Both Laqueur and Huntington boast distinguished careers as cold war ideologists for the bourgeoisie. Laqueur is a conservative Jewish scholar, a Holocaust survivor, intensely pro-Israel, anti-Arab, and a consulting scholar with the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Cold War "think tank" linked closely to the Pentagon since 1962. Bush's former secretary of defense, Rumsfeld, consulted with the CSIS on a regular basis. Huntington, a political science professor from Harvard, served as an adviser to Lyndon Johnson during the Vietnam War and in 1968 recommended a policy of heavy bombardment of the Vietnamese countryside to undermine peasants' support for the Viet Cong and drive them into the cities. He later worked with the Trilateral Commission in the 1970s, authoring the Governability of Democracies report in 1976 and served as policy coordinator for the National Security Council in the late 1970's.   In 1993 he wrote an article in Foreign Affairs, which was later expanded in 1996 into a book titled Clash of Civilizations in which he developed the thesis that after the collapse of the USSR, culture not ideology would become the dominant basis for conflicts in the world, and he predicted that an imminent clash of civilisations between Islam and the West would be the central international conflict in the future. Though Huntington's 2004 anti-immigrant tract was widely dismissed by academic scholars specializing in population studies and immigration and assimilation issues, his views got wide play among the media, pundits and policy "experts" in Washington.    

Huntington's protestations that foreign speaking immigrants would refuse to learn English, resist assimilation, and contribute to cultural pollution are standard fare in the annals of US history. In the late 1700s, Benjamin Franklin feared that Pennsylvania would be overwhelmed by the "swarm" of immigrants from Germany. "Why should Pennsylvania," Franklin asked, "founded by the English, become a colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them?" In 1896, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) President Francis Walker, an influential economist, warned that American citizenship could be degraded by "the tumultuous access of vast throngs of ignorant and brutalized peasantry from the countries of eastern and southern Europe."  President Theodore Roosevelt was so vexed by the influx of non-English speaking immigrants that he proposed that "every immigrant who comes here should be required within five years to learn English or leave the country." Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. made similar complaints about the socially, culturally and intellectually "inferior" immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. All of these fears and complaints of yesteryear are remarkably similar to Huntington's characterizations of the present situation.

The historic record has never supported these xenophobic fears. While there was always a certain segment of each immigrant group that aggressively sought to learn English, assimilate quickly and achieve economic success, assimilation tended to occur gradually - typically over a period of three generations. Immigrant adults generally retained their native language and cultural traditions in the US. They lived in ethnic neighborhoods, spoke their language in the community, in the shops, in religious settings, etc. They read native language newspapers, periodicals and books. Their children, who immigrated as youngsters or were born in the US, tended to be bilingual. They learned English in school and in the 20th century were surrounded by English in mass culture, but also spoke the native language of their parents in the home, and tended to marry within the national ethnic group. By the third generation, the grandchildren of the original immigrants generally lost the ability to speak the native language and were more likely to be unilingual English speakers. Their cultural assimilation was marked by a growing trend towards inter-marriage outside the original immigrant ethnic group. Despite the large Latino immigration in recent years, the same assimilation trends seem to be continuing intact in the current period in the US, according to recent studies by the Pew Hispanic Center and Princeton University sociologists.[16] 

However, even if the current wave of immigration were in fact qualitatively different from previous ones, would it matter? If workers have no country, why would we be concerned whether assimilation takes place? Engels advocated Americanization in the 1880s not as an end itself, not as some timeless principle of the workers' movement, but as a means to build a mass-based socialist movement. But as we have seen, this notion that such Americanization was a necessary precondition to build working class unity was disproven by the practice of the workers' movement itself in the early 20th century, which unequivocally demonstrated that the workers' movement can embrace the diversity and international character of the proletariat and build a united movement against the ruling class. 

While the 2008 xenophobic riots in South African slums are a warning sign that the bourgeoisie's anti-immigrant ideological campaigns lead ultimately to barbarism in social life, there is considerable evidence that capitalist propaganda severely exaggerates the level of anti-immigrant sentiment in the working class in the metropoles. In the US for example despite the best efforts of bourgeois media and rightwing propaganda to stir up hatred against immigrants around linguistic and cultural issues, the dominant attitude among the general population, including workers, is that immigrants are just workers trying to earn a living to support their families, that they are taking jobs that are too dirty and too low paying for "native" workers, and that it would be foolish to deport them.[17] In the class struggle itself there are increasing signs of solidarity between immigrant and "native" workers that is reminiscent of the internationalist unity at Lawrence in 1912. Examples include various struggles in 2008, such as the massive upheaval in Greece where immigrant workers joined the struggle, or in the Lindsey oil refinery strike in Britain in winter 2009 where immigrants clearly expressed their solidarity, or in the US in the Republic Window and Door factory occupation by Hispanic immigrant workers when "native" workers flocked to the plant bringing food and other supplies to show their support. 

Revolutionary intervention on the immigration question

According to media reports, 80 percent of Britons believe the United Kingdom faces a population crisis caused by immigration; more than 50% fear that British culture is being diluted; 60 percent that Great Britain is more dangerous because of immigration; and 85% want immigration cut or stopped.[18] The fact that there is a certain level of receptivity to the irrational fears of racism and xenophobia propagated by bourgeois ideology among certain elements of the working class does not surprise us since the ideology of the dominant class in class society will exert immense influence on the working class until the development of an openly revolutionary situation. However, whatever the success of the intrusion of bourgeois ideology within the working class, for the revolutionary movement the principle that the world working class is a unity, that workers have no country, is the bedrock of proletarian international solidarity and working class consciousness. Anything that stresses, aggravates, manipulates, or contributes to the "disunity" of the working class is contrary to the internationalist nature of the proletariat as a class and is a manifestation of bourgeois ideology against which revolutionaries fight. Our responsibility is to defend the historic truth that workers have no country.

In any case, as usual the accusations of bourgeois ideology against immigrants are more myth than reality. Immigrants are more likely to be the victims of criminals than to be criminals themselves. In general immigrants are honest, hardworking workers, who labor long, arduous hours to earn money to support themselves and to send home to their families. They are often cheated by unscrupulous employers who pay them less than the minimum wage and refuse to pay them overtime rates, by unscrupulous landlords who charge them exorbitant rents in slum housing, and by all manner of thieves, muggers, and robbers - all of whom count on the immigrants' fear of the authorities to keep them from complaining about their victimization. Statistics show that crime tends to increase among the second and third generations in immigrant families; not because of their immigration status but due to the fact of their continued grinding poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity as poor people.[19]

It is essential to be clear about the difference that exists today between the position of the Communist Left and that of all those who defend an anti-racist ideology (including those who pretend to be revolutionaries).  Despite the denunciation of the racist character of anti-immigrant ideology, the actions they promote are on the same terrain. Rather than stressing the basic unity of the proletariat they emphasize its division. In an updated version of the old "white skin privilege theory," they blame workers who are suspicious of immigrants, not capitalism for anti-immigrant racism, and they even go on to glorify immigrant workers, as heroes who are purer than native born workers. The "anti-racists" support immigrants versus non-immigrants rather than stress working class unity. The ideology of multiculturalism which they propagate seeks to divert workers away from class consciousness to the terrain of "identity politics" in which ethnic, linguistic, and national "identity" is determinant and not membership of the same class. This poisonous ideology says that Mexican immigrant workers have more in common with the Mexican bourgeois elements than other workers.  Faced with the discontent of immigrant workers against their persecution "anti-racism" ties them to the state. The solution proposed to immigrants' problems invariably stresses the resort to bourgeois legality, whether it is recruiting workers to the capitalist trade unions, or immigration law reform, or enrollment of immigrant workers in electoral politics, or formal recognition of legal "rights."  Everything but the united class struggle of the proletariat.

The Communist Left's denunciation of the xenophobia and racism directed against immigrant workers is sharply distinguished from this anti-racist ideology. Our position is in direct continuity with the position defended by the revolutionary movement from the Communist League and the Communist Manifesto, the First International, the left in the Second International, the IWW, and the early Communist Parties. Our intervention stresses the fundamental unity of the proletariat, exposes the attempt of the bourgeoisie to divide the workers against themselves, opposes bourgeois legalism, identity politics, and inter-classism. For example, the ICC demonstrated this internationalist position in the US when it exposed the capitalist manipulation aimed at the demonstrations of 2006 (in favor of the legalization of immigrants) which were largely composed of Hispanic immigrants. As we wrote in Internationalism n° 139, these demonstrations were "in large measure a bourgeois manipulation," "totally on the terrain of the bourgeoisie, which provoked the demonstrations, manipulated them, controlled them, and openly led them," and were infected with nationalism, "whether it was Latino nationalism which cropped up in the opening moments of the demonstrations, or the sickening rush to affirm Americanism that followed more recently," which was "designed to completely short circuit any possibility for immigrants and American-born workers to recognize their essential unity."

Above all else, we must stand for the defense of the international unity of the working class. As proletarian internationalists we reject as bourgeois ideology such constructs as "cultural pollution," "linguistic pollution," "national identity," "distrust of foreigners," or "defence of the community or neighbourhood." On the contrary, our intervention must defend the historical acquisitions of the working class movement: that workers have no country; that the defense of national culture or language or identity is not a task or concern of the proletariat; that we must reject the efforts of those who try to use these bourgeois conceptions to exacerbate the differences within the working class, to undermine working class unity. Whatever intrusions of alien class ideology may have occurred historically, the red thread running through the entire history of the revolutionary workers movement is internationalist class solidarity and unity. The proletariat comes from many countries and speaks many languages but it is one worldwide class with the historic responsibility to confront the system of capitalist exploitation and oppression. We embrace the linguistic, cultural and ethnic diversity of our class as a strength, not a weakness, and stress the unity of the proletariat above all else and international proletarian solidarity in the face of attempts to divide us against ourselves. We must turn the principle that the workers have no country into a living reality that holds within itself the possibility to create a genuine human community in communist society. Anything else constitutes an abandonment of revolutionary principle.

Jerry Grevin, Winter 2009.




[1]. Muenz, Rainer. "Europe: Population and Migration in 2005." Retrieved Sept. 2009 from

[2]. Lenin, The Development of Capitalism in Russia - also quoted in the same World Revolution article.

[3]. Engels to Hermann Schlüter (1892) in Marx and Engels on the Irish Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1971. p. 354.

[4]. Mehring, Franz, Karl Marx, p. 164.

[5]. Ibid. p. 167.

[6]. Stekloff, G.M., History of the First International, England: 1928. Chapter 7.

[7]. Mehring, op cit., p. 419.

[8]. Ibid. p. 486

[9]. Lenin, V.I. "The International Socialist Congress in Stuttgart," Proletary n° 17, Oct. 20, 1907 (We leave aside in this text controversies concerning the question of "aristocracy of labour" that Lenin implies.)

[10]. Lenin, V.I., Letter to the Secretary of the Socialist Propaganda League, Nov. 9, 1915.

[11]. Marx and Engels, Letters to Americans, p. 162-3, 290 (cited in Draper's, Roots of American Communism.)

[12]. Engels, Letter to Schlüter, op cit.

[13]. White skin privilege theory was an ideological concoction of the 1960's new leftists, which claimed that a supposed deal between the ruling class and the white working class granted white workers a higher standard of living at the expense of black workers who were victimized by racism and discrimination.

[14]. Draper, Theodore. The Roots of American Communism. Pp. 80-83

[15]. Ibid. p.79.

[16]. See "2003/2004 Pew Hispanic Center/the Kaiser Family Foundation Survey of Latinos: Education" and Rambaut, Reuben G., Massey, Douglas, S. and Bean, Frank. D. "Linguistic Life Expectancies: Immigrant Language Retention in Southern California. Population and Development, 32 (3): 47-460. Sept. 2006.

[17] "Problems and Priorities,", retrieved June 11, 2008.

[18]. Sunday Express. April 6, 2008.

[19]. States News Service, Immigration Fact Check: Responding to Key Myths, June 22, 2007

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Recent and ongoing: 

Science and the Marxist movement: The legacy of Freud

On the occasion of the recent bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth, the ICC published several articles about this great scientist and his theory of the evolution of species.[1] These articles are an aspect of something that has always been present in the workers' movement: an interest in scientific questions, which is expressed at the highest level in the revolutionary theory of the proletariat, marxism. Marxism developed a critique of the idealist and religious views of human society and history which predominated in feudal and capitalist society but which also impregnated the socialist theories which marked the first steps of the workers' movement at the beginning of the 19th century. Against the latter, marxism saw as one of its first priorities the need to base the perspective of the future society, which would deliver humanity from exploitation, oppression and all the scourges which have afflicted it for millennia, not on the realisation of the abstract principles of equality and justice but on a material necessity flowing from the actual evolution of human history, and of nature, which is driven in the last instance by material forces and not by spiritual ones. This is why the workers' movement, beginning with Marx and Engels themselves, always paid particular attention to science.

Science appeared well before the beginning of the workers' movement and the working class itself. We can even say that the latter was only able to develop on a broad scale thanks to the progress of science, which was one of the preconditions for the rise of capitalism, the mode of production based on the exploitation of the proletariat. In this sense, the bourgeoisie is the first class in history which had an ineluctable need for science to ensure its own development and to affirm its own power over society. By appealing to science it was able to break the grip of religion which was the basic ideological instrument for the defence and justification of feudal society. But even more than this, science was the underpinning of the mastery of the technology of production and transport, which was a precondition for the expansion of capitalism. When the latter had reached its high point, bringing into being the force which the Communist Manifesto called its "gravedigger", the modern proletariat, the bourgeoisie turned back towards religion and the mystical visions of society which had the great merit of justifying a social order founded on exploitation and oppression, In doing so, while it continued to promote and finance all the research needed to guarantee its profits, to increase the productivity of labour power and improve the effectiveness of its military forces, it moved away from the scientific approach when it came to understanding how human society works.

It fell to the proletariat, in its struggle against capitalism and for its overthrow, to take up the flame of scientific understanding abandoned by the bourgeoisie. This is what it did in the mid-19th century by opposing the apologetics which had taken the place of the study of the economy, ie the skeleton of society, and putting forward a critical and revolutionary approach to this subject, a necessarily scientific vision, expressed for example in Karl Marx's Capital. This is why the revolutionary organisations of the proletariat have the responsibility of encouraging an interest in scientific knowledge and research, notably in the areas which relate to human society, to the human being and the psyche, domains where the ruling class has an interest in cultivating obscurantism. This does not mean that to be part of a communist organisation it is necessary to have studied science, to be capable of defending Darwin's theory or to resolve second degree equations. The bases for joining our organisation are contained in the platform which every militant has to agree with and has a responsibility to defend. Similarly, on a whole series of questions, for example the analysis we make of this or that aspect of the international situation, the organisation has to have a position which is expressed, generally speaking, in resolutions adopted by our congresses or by plenary meetings of our central organ. In these cases, it is not obligatory for each militant to agree with such statements of position. The simple fact that these resolutions are adopted after discussion and vote means that there can perfectly well be different points of view, which, if they persist and are sufficiently developed, can be expressed publicly in our press, as we can see with the debate on the economic basis of the boom that followed the second world war.

With regard to questions that deal with cultural matters (film criticism, for example) or scientific issues, not only do they not need to have the agreement of every militant (as is the case with the platform) but in general they cannot be seen as representing the position of the organisation, as is the case for resolutions adopted by congresses. Thus, like the articles we published on Darwin, the article that follows, written on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the death of Sigmund Freud, does not express the view of the ICC as such. It should be seen as a contribution to a discussion involving not only militants of the ICC who may or may not agree with its content, but also those outside our organisation. It is part of a rubric of the International Review that the ICC aims to make as lively as possible and which has the aim of giving an account of reflections and discussion touching on cultural and scientific questions. In this sense, it constitutes an appeal for contributions which may express a different point of view from the one expressed in this article.

Freud's legacy

On 23 September 1939, Sigmund Freud died in the Hampstead house that is now the London Freud Museum. A few weeks before the Second World War had broken out. There is a story that the dying Freud, either listening a radio debate or responding to a question from his grandson (versions vary), answered the burning question "Will this be the last war?" with the laconic "At any rate, it will be my last war". 

Freud had been exiled from his home and practice in Vienna soon after Nazi thugs entered his apartment and arrested his daughter Anna Freud, who was released soon afterwards. Freud faced persecution from the Nazi power installed after the "Anschluss" between Germany and Austria not only because he was a Jew, but also because he was the founding figure of psychoanalysis, condemned by the regime as an example of "degenerate Jewish thought": Freud's works, alongside those of Marx, Einstein, Kafka, Thomas Mann and others, had the honour of being among the first to be consigned to the flames in the orgy of book-burning in1933. 

But the Nazis were not alone in their hatred for Freud. Their fair-ground mirror image, the Stalinists, had also decided that Freud's theories needed to be denounced from the pulpits of the state. Just as the triumph of Stalinism had put an end to all experimentation in art, education and other areas of social life, so it resulted in a witch-hunt against the followers of psychoanalysis within the Soviet Union, in particular those who saw Freud's theories as being compatible with marxism. The early Soviet power had taken a very different attitude. Even though the Bolsheviks were by no means monolithic in their approach to this question, a number of leading Bolsheviks, including Lunarcharsky, Bukharin and Trotsky himself, were sympathetic to the aims and methods of psychoanalysis; as a result, the Russian branch of the International Psychoanalytical Association was the first in the world to obtain backing and funding from a state. During this period, one of the main focuses of the branch was the setting up of an "Orphans' School" devoted to bringing up and treating children who had been traumatised by the loss of parents in the civil war. Freud himself took a lively interest in these experiments: he was particularly curious about how the various efforts to bring up children on a communal basis, rather than within the tyrannical confines of the nuclear family, would impact on the Oedipus complex, which he had identified as a central issue in the individual's psychological history. Meanwhile, Bolsheviks like Lev Vygotsky, Alexander Luria, Tatiana Rosenthal and M A Reisner made contributions to psychoanalytical theory and explored its relationship with historical materialism.[2]

All this came to an end as the Stalinist bureaucracy fortified its grip over the state.  Freud's ideas were increasingly denounced as petty bourgeois, decadent and above all idealist, while the more mechanistic approach of Pavlov and his theory of the "conditioned reflex" were favoured as an example of materialist psychology. In the later 20s there was a formidable growth of vicious anti-Freudian texts written by mouthpieces of the regime, a series of "defections" by former supporters of Freud like Aron Zalkind, even hysterical attacks on the "loose morality" crassly associated with Freudian ideas as part of a more general "Thermidor in the Family" (Trotsky's phrase).

Stalinism's final victory over "Freudism" was consecrated at the Congress on Human Behaviour in 1930, particularly in the speech by Zalkind, who poured scorn on the entire Freudian approach and argued that its views on human behaviour were entirely incompatible with the needs of "socialist construction": "How can we use the Freudian conception of man for socialist construction? We need a socially 'open' man who is easily collectivised, and quickly and profoundly transformed in his behaviour - a man capable of being a steady, conscious and independent person, politically and ideologically well-trained..."[3] We know full well what this kind of "transformation" and "training" really meant: breaking the human personality and the resistance of labour in the service of state capital and its remorseless Five Year Plans. In this vision, there was clearly no place for the subtleties and complexities of psychoanalysis, which might be used to show that Stalinist "socialism" had cured none of humanity's ills. And of course, the fact that psychoanalysis had enjoyed a certain measure of support from the now-exiled Trotsky was milked to the maximum in the ideological offensive against Freud's theories.

And in the "democratic" world?

But what of the representatives of capitalism's democratic camp? Didn't Roosevelt's America bring pressure to bear in getting Freud and his immediate family out of Vienna, and didn't Britain provide the eminent Professor Doctor Freud with a comfortable home? Didn't psychoanalysis in the west, and above all in the USA, become a new kind of orthodox psychological church, and certainly a profitable one for many of its practitioners? As it happens, the reaction to Freud's theories among the scientists and intellectuals in the democracies has always been very mixed, with veneration, fascination and respect being liberally mixed with outrage, resistance and scorn. But in the years that followed Freud's death, there have been two major trends in the reception of psychoanalytical theory: on the one hand, a tendency among many of its own spokesmen and practitioners to water down some of its most subversive implications (such as the idea that present-day civilisation is necessarily founded on the repression of humanity's deepest instincts) in favour of a more pragmatic, revisionist approach more likely to find social and political acceptance from that very same civilisation; and, on the other hand, among a number of philosophers, psychologists of rival schools, and more or less commercially successful authors, a growing rejection of the entire corpus of Freudian ideas as subjective, unverifiable, and basically unscientific. The dominant trends in modern psychology (there have been exceptions, such as the ideas of "neuro-psychoanalysis" which have re-examined Freud's model of the psyche in terms of what we now understand about the structure of the brain) have abandoned Freud's journey along the "royal road to the unconscious", his insistence on exploring the meaning of dreams, jokes, slips of the tongue and other insubstantial wraiths, in favour of studying more observable and measurable phenomena: the external, physiological manifestations of mental states, and the concrete forms of behaviour among humans, rats and other animals observed in laboratory conditions. In psychotherapy, the welfare state, keen to reduce the potentially enormous costs incurred in the treatment of growing pandemic of stress, neurosis and plain old insanity engendered by the present social system, favours quick-fix solutions like "Cognitive Behaviour Therapy" over the efforts of psychoanalysis to penetrate to the deep roots of individual neuroses.[4] Above all, and this is especially true in the last couple of decades, we have seen a veritable torrent of books and articles which have tried to cast Freud as a lying charlatan, a fraud who doctored his evidence, a tyrant towards his followers, a hypocrite and (why not?) a pervert. This onslaught has more than a passing resemblance to the anti-Marx campaign launched after the collapse of so-called "Communism" at the end of the 80s, and just as the latter campaign gave rise to its Black Book of Communism, so we have now been treated to a Black Book of Psychoanalysis[5] which devotes no less than 830 pages to its search for dirt on Freud and the psychoanalytical movement.    

Marxism and the unconscious

Hostility to psychoanalysis didn't surprise Freud: in general, it confirmed to him that he was hitting the right target. After all, why would he be popular for pointing out that civilisation (at least as presently constituted) was so antithetical to man's instincts, and for dealing a wounding, further blow to man's "naïve self-love" as he put it?

"But in thus emphasising the unconscious in mental life we have conjured up the most evil spirits of criticism against psychoanalysis, Do not be surprised at this, and do not suppose that the resistance to us rests only on the understandable difficulty of the unconscious or the relative inaccessibility of the experiences which provide evidence of it. Its source, I think, lies deeper. In the course of centuries the naïve self-love of men has had to submit to two major blows at the hands of science. The first was when they learnt that our earth was not the centre of the universe but only a tiny fragment of a cosmic system of scarcely imaginable vastness. This is associated in our minds with the name of Copernicus, though something similar had already been asserted by Alexandrian science. The second blow fell when biological research destroyed man's supposedly privileged place in creation and proved his descent from the animal kingdom and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-evaluation has been accomplished in our own days by Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, though not without the most violent contemporary opposition. But human megalomania will have suffered its third and most wounding blow from the psychological research of the present time which seeks to prove to the ego that it is not even master in its own house, but must content itself with scanty information of what is going on unconsciously in its mind".[6]

For marxists, however, it should come as no shock to be told that man's conscious life is - or has been hitherto - dominated by unconscious motivations. The marxist concept of ideology (which in its view encompasses all forms of social consciousness prior to the emergence of the class consciousness of the proletariat) is firmly predicated on exactly such a notion.

"Every ideology ... once it has arisen develops in connection with the given concept-material, and develops this material further; otherwise it would cease to be ideology, that is, occupation with thoughts as with independent entities, developing independently and subject only to their own laws. That the material life-conditions of the persons inside whose heads this thought process goes on in the last resort determine the course of this process remains of necessity unknown to these persons, for otherwise there would be an end to all ideology."[7]

Marxism thus recognises that up till now man's consciousness of his real position in the world has been inhibited or distorted by factors of which he is unaware; that social life as hitherto constituted has created fundamental blockages in man's mental processes. A clear example of this would be the historic inability of the bourgeoisie to envisage a higher form of society than capitalism, since this would imply its own demise. This is what Lukacs called a "class conditioned unconsciousness".[8] And the question can also be approached from the standpoint of Marx's theory of alienation: alienated man is man estranged from his fellow man, from nature, and from himself, whereas communism will overcome this estrangement and man will be fully conscious of himself.

Trotsky defends psychoanalysis

Of all the marxists of the 20th century, it is perhaps Trotsky who has been most committed to opening a dialogue with the theories of Freud, which he had initially encountered during his stay in Vienna in 1908. While still involved in the Soviet state, but increasingly marginalised, Trotsky insisted that Freud's approach to psychology was essentially materialist. He was opposed to any particular school of psychology being adopted as the "official" line of state or party, but called instead for an open and wide-ranging debate. In Culture and Socialism, written in 1925-6, Trotsky weighs up the different approaches of the Pavlovian and Freudian schools and outlines what he thinks should be the party's attitude to these questions:

"Marxist criticism in science must be not only vigilant but also prudent, otherwise it can degenerate into mere sycophancy...Take psychology even. Pavlov's reflexology proceeds entirely along the paths of dialectical materialism. It conclusively breaks down the wall between physiology and psychology. The simplest reflex is physiological, but a system of reflexes gives us ‘consciousness'. The accumulation of physiological quantity gives a new ‘psychological' quality. The method of Pavlov's school is experimental and painstaking. Generalisations are won step by step: from the saliva of dogs to poetry, that is, to the mental mechanics of poetry, not its social content - though the paths that bring us to poetry have as yet not been revealed.

"The school of the Viennese psychoanalyst Freud proceeds in a different way. It assumes in advance that the driving force of the most complex and delicate of psychic processes is a physiological need. In this general sense it is materialistic, if you leave aside the question whether it does not assign too big a place to the sexual factor at the expense of others, for this is already a dispute within the frontiers of materialism. But the psychoanalyst does not approach problems of consciousness experimentally, going from the lowest phenomena to the highest, from the simple reflex to the complex reflex; instead, he attempts to take all these intermediate stages in one jump, from above downwards, from the religious myth, the lyrical poem, or the dream, straight to the physiological basis of the psyche.

"The idealists tell us that the psyche is an independent entity, that the ‘soul' is a bottomless well. Both Pavlov and Freud think that the bottom of the ‘soul' is physiology. But Pavlov, like a diver, descends to the bottom and laboriously investigates the well from there upwards, while Freud stands over the well and with a penetrating gaze tries to pierce its ever-shifting and troubled waters and to make out or guess the shape of the things down below. Pavlov's method is experimental; Freud's is conjecture, sometimes fantastic conjecture. The attempt to declare psychoanalysis ‘incompatible' with Marxism and simply turn one's back on Freudianism is too simple, or, more accurately, too simplistic. But we are in any case not obliged to accept Freudianism. It is a working hypothesis that can produce and undoubtedly does produce deductions and conjectures that proceed along the liens of materialist psychology. The experimental procedure in due course will provide the tests for these conjectures. But we have no grounds and no right to a ban upon the other procedures which, even though it may be less reliable, yet tries to anticipate the conclusions to which the experimental procedure is advancing only very slowly".

In fact, Trotsky very quickly began to question Pavlov's somewhat mechanistic approach, which tends to reduce conscious activity to the famous "conditioned reflex". In a speech given shortly after the publication of the above text, Trotsky wondered whether we could indeed arrive at knowledge of the sources of human poetry by studying the saliva of dogs.[9] And in his subsequent reflections on psychoanalysis contained in these "philosophical notebooks" compiled in exile, his emphasis is much more on the need to understand that recognising the relative autonomy of the psyche, while conflicting with a mechanistic version of materialism, is perfectly compatible with a more dialectical vision of materialism:

"It is well known that there is an entire school of psychiatry (psychoanalysis, Freud) which in practise completely removes itself from physiology, basing itself upon the inner determinism of psychic phenomena, such as they are. Some critics therefore accuse the Freudian school of idealism....But by itself the method of psychoanalysis, taking as its point of departure ‘the autonomy' of psychological phenomena, in no way contradicts materialism. Quite the contrary, it is precisely dialectical materialism that prompts us to the idea that the psyche could not even be formed unless it played an autonomous, that is, within certain limits, an independent role in the life of the individual and the species.

"All the same, we approach here some kind of crucial point, a break in the gradualness, a transition from quantity into quality: the psyche, arising from matter, is ‘freed' from the determinism of matter, can independently - by its own laws - influence matter".[10]

Trotsky is arguing here that there is a real convergence between marxism and psychoanalysis. For both, consciousness, or rather the whole of the psyche, is a material product of the real movement of nature, and not some force squatting outside the world; it is the product of unconscious processes which precede and determine it. But it in turn becomes an active factor that to a certain extent takes on its own dynamic, and which, most importantly, is capable of acting on and transforming the unconscious. This is the only basis for an approach which makes man something more than the creature of objective circumstances, and renders him capable of changing the world around him.

And here we come to what is perhaps the most important conclusion that Trotsky draws from his investigation into Freud's theories. Freud, we recall, had argued that the principal blow that psychoanalysis had dealt to man's "naïve self-love" was its confirmation that the ego is not master of the house, that to a large extent its view of and approach to the world is conditioned by instinctual forces which have been repressed into the unconscious. Freud did, on one or two occasions, allow himself to envisage a society which had overcome the endless struggle against material scarcity and therefore would no longer have to impose this repression on its members.[11] But on the whole, his outlook remained cautiously pessimistic, seeing no social avenue that could lead to such a society. Trotsky, as a revolutionary, was obliged to raise the possibility of a fully conscious humanity that had indeed become master of its own house. Indeed, for Trotsky, the freeing of mankind from the domination of the unconscious becomes the central project of communist society:

"Man at last will begin to harmonise himself in earnest. He will make it his business to achieve beauty by giving the movement of his own limbs the utmost precision, purposefulness and economy in his work, his walk and his play. He will try to master first the semiconscious and then the subconscious processes in his own organism, such as breathing, the circulation of the blood, digestion, reproduction, and, within necessary limits, he will try to subordinate them to the control of reason and will. Even purely physiologic life will become subject to collective experiments. The human species, the coagulated Homo Sapiens, will once more enter into a state of radical transformation, and, in his own hands, will become an object of the most complicated methods of artificial selection and psycho‑physical training. This is entirely in accord with evolution. Man first drove the dark elements out of industry and ideology, by displacing barbarian routine by scientific technique and religion by science. Afterwards he drove the unconscious out of politics, by overthrowing monarchy and class with democracy and rationalist parliamentarianism and then with the clear and open Soviet dictatorship. The blind elements have settled most heavily in economic relations, but man is driving them out from there also, by means of the socialist organisation of economic life. This makes it possible to reconstruct fundamentally the traditional family life. Finally, the nature of man himself is hidden in the deepest and darkest corner of the unconscious, of the elemental, of the sub‑soil. Is it not self‑evident that the greatest efforts of investigative thought and of creative initiative will be in that direction?"[12]

Evidently, Trotsky is looking very far into the communist future in this passage. The priority of mankind in the earlier phases of communism will surely be concerned with those layers of the unconscious where the origins of neurosis and mental suffering can be tracked down, while the goal of achieving control over even more basic physiological processes raises further questions which are beyond the scope of this essay, and which in any case are most likely to be posed in a more advanced level of communist culture.

Communists today may or may not agree with many of Freud's ideas. But we must certainly react with extreme distrust towards the current campaigns against Freud and stand by the open-minded approach which Trotsky advocated. At the very least it must be admitted that as long as we live in world where mankind's "evil passions" can still explode with terrifying force; where sexual relations between human beings, whether brutally held in check by mediaeval ideologies or cheapened and prostituted in the global marketplace, continue to be a source of untold human misery; where for the vast majority of mankind the creative powers of the mind remain largely buried and inaccessible - then the problems posed by Sigmund Freud must not only remain as relevant today as when they were first raised, but their resolution will surely be an irreplaceable element in the construction of a truly human society.


[1]. See Anton Pannekoek's "Darwinism and Marxism" in International Review n° 137 and no. 138 as well as the articles "Darwin and the workers' movement ", "On the book The Darwin Effect: A materialist conception of the origins of morals and civilisation " and "Social Darwinism, a reactionary ideology of capitalism " on ICC online.

[2]. The following words from Lenin, reported by Clara Zetkin in "Reminiscences of Lenin", 1924, show that the Bolsheviks did not have a unilateral approach towards Freud's theories - even if it seems that Lenin's criticisms were directed more at the defenders of these theories than at the theories themselves :"The situation In Germany itself calls for the greatest unity of all proletarian revolutionary forces, so that they can repel the counter-revolution which is pushing on. But active Communist women are busy discussing sex problems and the forms of marriage ‘past, present and future'. They consider it their most important task to enlighten working women on these questions. It is said that a pamphlet on the sex question written by a Communist authoress from Vienna enjoys the greatest popularity. What rot that booklet is! The workers read what is right in it long ago in Bebel. Only not in the tedious, cut-and-dried form found in the pamphlet but in the form of gripping agitation that strikes out at bourgeois society. The mention of Freud's hypotheses is designed to give the pamphlet a scientific veneer, but it is so much bungling by an amateur. Freud's theory has now become a fad. I mistrust sex theories expounded in articles, treatises, pamphlets, etc. in short, the theories dealt with in that specific literature which sprouts so luxuriantly on the dung heap of bourgeois society. I mistrust those who are always absorbed in the sex problems, the way an Indian saint is absorbed In the contemplation of his navel.

"It seems to me that this superabundance of sex theories, which for the most part are mere hypotheses, and often quite arbitrary ones, stems from a personal need. It springs from the desire to justify one's own abnormal or excessive sex life before bourgeois morality and to plead for tolerance towards oneself. This veiled respect for bourgeois morality is as repugnant to me as rooting about in all that bears on sex. No matter how rebellious and revolutionary it may be made to appear, it is in the final analysis thoroughly bourgeois. Intellectuals and others like them are particularly keen on this. There is no room for it in the Party, among the class-conscious, fighting proletariat."

[3].  Quoted in Miller, Freud and the Bolsheviks, Yale, 1998, p 102.

[4]. We should however point out that we are not concerned in this article to make judgments on the therapeutic effectiveness of Freud's approach. We are hardly qualified to do so, and in any case there is no mechanical link between the practical application of Freudian therapy and the theory of mind that lies behind it - not least because the "cure" for neurosis in a society which constantly engenders it must ultimately lie at the social rather than the individual level. It is the fundamentals of Freud's theory of mind that we are considering here, and it is above all these fundamentals that we see as a real heritage for the workers' movement.

[5]. Le Livre Noir de la Psychoanalyse. The Black Book of Psychoanalysis: To Live, Think and Feel Better Without Freud Catharine Meyer, Mikkel Borch-Jacobsen, Jean Cottraux, Didier Pleux & Jacques Van Rillaer (Ed). Paris, France: Les Arènes. 2005.

[6]. Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, Lecture 18, "Fixation to traumas - the unconscious". 1917.

[7]. Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy, 1886.

[8].  History and Class Consciousness.

[9]. See Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935, Writings on Lenin, Dialectics and Evolutionism, translated and introduced by Philip Pomper, New York 1998, p 49.

[10]. Culture and Socialism, p. 106.

[11]. Contrary to the oft-repeated cliché that Freud "reduced everything to sex", he made it clear that "the motive of human society is in the last instance an economic one; since it does not possess enough provisions to keep its members alive unless they work, it must restrict the number of its members and divert their energies from sexual activities to work. It is faced, in short, by the eternal, primeval exigencies of life, which are with us to this day" (Introductory Lectures, Lecture 20, "The sexual life of human beings"). In other words; repression is the product of human social organisations dominated by material scarcity. In another passage, this time from The Future of an Illusion (1927), Freud showed an understanding of the class nature of "civilised" society and even permitted himself in passing to envisage a stage beyond it: "If a culture has not gone beyond a point at which the satisfaction of one portion of its participants depends upon the suppression of another - and this is the case in all present-day cultures - it is understandable that the suppressed people should develop an intense hostility towards a culture whose existence they make possible by their work, but in whose wealth they have too small a share...The hostility of these classes to civilisation is so obvious that it has caused the more latent hostility of the social strata who are better provided for to be overlooked. It goes without saying that a civilisation which leaves so large a number of its participants unsatisfied and drives them into revolt neither has nor deserves the prospect of a lasting existence" (Chapter 2).  Thus the present order not only has "no prospect of a lasting existence", but there could perhaps be a culture that has "gone beyond a point" at which class divisions (and, by implication, the hitherto existing mechanisms of mental repression) might become superfluous.

[12]. Literature and Revolution, 1924.

General and theoretical questions: 


The Hot Autumn in Italy 1969 (Part 1)

An Episode in the Historic Resurgence of the Class Struggle

What is generally remembered of the "Italian Hot Autumn",[1] which took place 40 years ago, is of a number of struggles that shook Italy from Piedmont to Sicily and which permanently changed the social and political framework of the country. But this was not a specifically Italian occurrence. In Europe in particular but not exclusively, the end of the 1960s saw the development of a series of struggles and of consciousness within the proletariat, that together showed that something had changed: the working class had reappeared on the social scene. It was re-embarking on its historic struggle against the bourgeoisie following the long dark years of counter-revolution, which it had been plunged into by the defeat of the 1920s, the Second World War and the counter-revolutionary activities of Stalinism. The "French May" in 1968,[2] the strikes in Poland in 1970[3] and the struggles in Argentina[4] from 1969 to 1973 constitute, together with the Hot Autumn in Italy, the most important moments in this new dynamic which affected every country in the world because it opened up a new period of social confrontations which, although experiencing high and low points, continues up to the present day.

What led up to the Hot Autumn?

Having learned from the experience of May ‘68, the Italian bourgeoisie was not taken by surprise when the struggles exploded in 1969, as the French bourgeoisie had been the previous year, although this did not mean that it was not at times overtaken by events. These struggles did not come like lightning from a clear blue sky. In fact there were a whole number of factors at the national as well as the international level that came together to create a new atmosphere in the Italian working class and particularly among its young elements.

The climate internationally

Internationally, a significant fringe of young people were sensitised by a number of situations, in particular:

-          The Vietnam war,[5] which came across as a fight between David - Vietnam - and Goliath - the USA. Outraged by the terrible massacres using napalm and other violence inflicted by the American army upon the local population, many went so far as to identify with the Vietcong resistance and to support "poor little Vietnam" against powerful American "imperialism".[6]

-          The epic tale of Che Guevara,[7] with his hero's halo fighting for the liberation of humanity and all the more revered by future generations after he was assassinated by the Bolivian army and CIA special forces in October 1967.

-          The plots of the Palestinian guerrillas,[8] in particular of George Habache's FPLP, which developed within the context of hostile reactions to the outcome of the Six Days War, waged and won in 1967 by Israel against Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

-          An international echo of "Chinese communism", presented as the establishment of real communism in contrast to bureaucratised "Soviet communism". In particular, the "cultural revolution",[9] carried out by Mao Zedong in the period 1966-1969 defined itself as a struggle to return to the orthodox application of "Marxist-Leninist thought".

Some of these aspects are not even remotely linked to the proletarian class struggle to overthrow capitalism. The horrors inflicted upon the Vietnamese population during the war were a consequence of the imperialist antagonisms between the two rival blocs that divided up the world at the time. The resistance on the part of guerrilla movements, whether Palestinian or Guevarist, were no more than an episode in the fight to the death between these two blocs for the domination of other regions of the world. As for "communism" in China, it was as capitalist as that existing in the USSR and the so-called "cultural revolution" was no more than a power struggle between Mao's faction and that of Deng Xiaoping and Liu Shaoqi.

Nevertheless, all these incidents bore witness to a profound suffering on the part of humanity which generated in many elements a deep disgust for the violence of war and a feeling of solidarity towards the populations that were its victims. As for Maoism, although it was by no means a solution to the ills of capitalism and was rather a mystification and one more trap on the path of emancipation, it did nevertheless nourish international contestation of the reality of "communism" in Russia.

Within this context, the explosion of student and workers' struggles that was the "French May" had such an international echo that it represented a reference point and an encouragement for the youth and the proletarians of the whole world. In fact May ‘68 was a demonstration that you can not only struggle but you can also win. May '68 itself however, at least as far as the student struggles were concerned, was prepared by other movements, such as those that appeared in Germany with the experience of the Kritische Universität[10] and the formation of the SDS (Socialistischer Deutscher Studentenbund), or in Holland with the Provos, or again in the United States with the Black Panther party.  This was a period in which somehow everything that happened in the world had a great echo in all the other countries because of the significant receptivity that existed, especially among the young generation of proletarians and students who were to be the main protagonists of the Hot Autumn. The ambient anxiety and reflection inspired charismatic personalities in the world of show business, such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jimmy Hendrix and others whose songs evoked both the demands of peoples and social strata who were repressed and exploited historically (such as the blacks in America) as well as the atrocities of war (such as Vietnam) and also exalted the desire for emancipation.

Politicisation at the national level

In Italy too, as in France earlier, the weakening of the iron yoke forged by Stalinism during the long years of counter-revolution made possible the development of a political maturation that provided a favourable terrain for the emergence of various minorities which would take up the task of research and clarification. In addition, the arrival of a new generation of workers meant a greater combativity that led to the appearance of new characteristics in the struggle and experience of street confrontation that would leave their mark on the working class.

The experience of the Quaderni Rossi (QR, Red Notebooks)

At the beginning of the 1960s, although still fully in the period of counter-revolution, small groups of elements who were critical of Stalinism tried to the best of their ability to "start from scratch". In fact in this period the PCI (Italian Communist Party), which had gone over to the counter-revolution and been "Stalinised" as had the other CPs in the world, had a large number of rank and file members and sympathisers, partly thanks to the aura inherited from the old revolutionary party founded by Bordiga in 1921. The twenty years of fascism in Italy and the disappearance of the "democratic" parties made it possible for the PCI, more than the other CPs, to escape identification as a real class enemy by the mass of workers. However, as early as the 1950s and even more so in the 1960s, minorities had begun to appear, even within the PCI itself, who were trying to return to real class positions. They returned above all to Marx, whereas Lenin was read less in this period. Rosa Luxemburg was also rediscovered.

One of the experiences that was a reference point in this period was that of the Quaderni Rossi, a group formed within the PCI and around the person of Raniero Panzieri and which in the period of its existence (1961-1966) published only six issues of a review which would certainly have an enormous weight in the history of the theoretical reflection of the left in Italy. We can attribute to this review the origin of "operaismo" (workerism), which we will go into later. The two main groups of Italian workerism, Potere Operaio and Lotta Continua, come out of this matrix. The work of Quaderni Rossi was divided between the re-reading of Capital, the "rediscovery" of Marx's Grundrisse and research into the new composition of the working class. "(...) Quaderni Rossi, the review of Raniero Panzieri, Vittorio Foa, Mario Tronti and Alberto Asor Rosa, between 1961 and 1966 was at the forefront in terms of the intuition that was to be central to the political line of Lotta Continua: the revolution will not come out of ballot boxes or parties (...); it is a matter of freeing the expression of antagonism between the workers and exploitation, an antagonism that should not be channelled towards factory agreements and reforms but should rather be taken out of the hands of the unionists and engineers and axed around the perspective of control of production and a global change in the system".[11]

Panzieri's project was to assemble tendencies and viewpoints that were pretty varied and distant from each other, although the period, which was still strongly marked by the counter-revolution, did not make such an enterprise possible. So "at the beginning of 1962, although the debate had hardly begun in the first issue of the review, the union group withdrew; in July of the same year, following the events of Piazza Statuto, there was the first defection of interventionists (who would produce the paper ‘Gatto selvaggio' (Wildcat)."[12]

In parallel with the QR experience, in the Venice region there was another experience but one that had less political breadth, Progresso Veneto. The man who was to become the unifying element between the two experiences and who became  very famous subsequently  started his political career as a local councillor in the Padua district:   his name was Toni Negri. The Progresso Veneto, which was active between December 1961 and March 1962, was where Venetian workerism began to be forged, with the industrial region of Porto Marghera especially as a reference point. QR and Progresso Veneto worked in symbiosis for a certain period until the Venetian group experienced a split in June 1963 between the workerists and the socialists, who remained more faithful to the party to which they belonged.

But the most important split is the one that took place in 1964 with QR. The original group saw the departure of Mario Tronti, Alberto Asor Rosa, Massimo Cacciari, Rita Di Leo and others to form Classe Operaia (Working Class). Whereas Panzieri remained set on a kind of sociological research with no significant impact on reality, Class Operaia aimed at having a presence and an immediate influence within the working class, judging the time to be ripe for this: "In our eyes their work appears as sophisticated intellectualising in the face of what we consider to be an urgent necessity, that is, to make the unions understand how they should do their job as unionists and make the party understand how to make the revolution".[13]

A party of workerists from Progresso Veneto later joined Classe Operaia, which was led by Mario Tronti. In the beginning at least, Negri, Cacciari and Ferrari Bravo participated. But the new review also had a hard life; the Venetian editorial commission of Classe Operaia began gradually to distance itself from the one in Rome. In fact, whereas the Romans drew closer to their origins in the PCI, the Venetians gave birth to Potere Operaio, which originally came out as a supplement to Classe Operaia in the form of a review-cum-leaflet. Class Operaia began its swan song in 1965 but the last publication came out in March 1967. In the same month Potere Operaia was born as a political paper of the Porto Marghera workers.[14]

Apart from Quaderni Rossi and its various epigones, in Italy there was a rich network of editorial initiatives, which were sometimes born in specific cultural sectors, such as the cinema or literature, and then gradually acquired more political breadth and a certain militant character. Publications such as Giovane Critica, Quaderni Piacentini, Nuovo Impegno, Quindici, Lavoro Politico were also expressions and component parts of the maturation that led to the events of 1968-69.

We can see that there was a long period of political work taking place at the dawn of the Hot Autumn which made possible, at least at the level of the minorities, the development of political thought and the rediscovery, still very partial, of the patrimony of the Marxist classics. But we must still stress the fact that what were to become the most significant workerist formations in the 1970s were deeply rooted in the political culture of the old PCI, and that they developed in a period much earlier than the explosion of struggles in 1969 and of those of the students in 1968. To have the Stalinist party as a point of departure and reference, even if this was in a negative sense in its criticisms, constitutes, as we will see, the gravest limitation upon the experience of the workerist groups and for the movement of the whole period.

The "new" working class

Socially the determining factor in the development of the situation was probably the significant growth of the working class in the years of the economic miracle at the expense of the population in the countryside and in peripheral areas in the south. "To sum up, we find an elite group of professional workers surrounded by a large majority of unqualified workers working with very brief cycles, sometimes only a few seconds long, subjected to rigid control of the time that they put into piece work and with absolutely no perspective of a professional career".[15] This new generation of proletarians from the south did not yet have experience of factory work and had not yet been exposed to its constraints. As they were young and often experiencing their first job, these proletarians had no knowledge of the unions and, in particular, they had not endured the weight of the past decades of defeat, of the war, fascism, repression. They had simply the impetuousness of those who are discovering a new world and want to bend it to their own liking. This "new" working class; young, non-politicised and not unionised, without the weight of history to pull them down, would to a large extent make the history of the Hot Autumn.

The movements of July 1960 and the confrontations in Piazza Statuto in July 1962

The workers' struggles of the Hot Autumn have a significant prelude at the beginning of the 1960s when there were two important episodes of struggle: the street movements in July '60 and the confrontations in Piazza Statuto, Turin in July '62.

Although these two episodes are removed in time from the period 68-69, they contain some important premises. In fact the working class experienced what it means to have the state taking an interest in it.

The movement of July 1960 took off from a  protest against the neo-fascists holding their congress in Genoa, which had unleashed throughout Italy a series of demonstration that were savagely repressed: "At San Fernando in Puglia, the workers were on strike over the workplace agreements, as in the rest of Italy. Armed police attacked them and three workers were seriously injured. In Licata, in the Agrigento region, a general strike took place against working conditions. On the 5th the police charged and opened fire on the demonstration that was led by the DC (Christian Democrat) mayor Castelli, the shop-keeper Vincenzo Napoli, 25 years old, was shot dead. (...) The following day a procession making its way towards the sanctuary of Porta San Paolo - the last bastion in the defence of Rome against the Nazis - was charged and savagely beaten. (...) Another general strike broke out. This produced another furious reaction on the part of the government, which gave orders to shoot on sight: five shot dead and twenty-two wounded in Reggio Emilia on the 7th. (...) The first to fall was Lauro Ferioli, a 22 year old worker. Mario Serri, 40 year old ex- partisan, was next to him and fell a moment later: the killers were two agents positioned among the trees. (...) Later a burst of machine gun fire cut down Emilio Reverberi, 30 years old. Finally, when the furious voice of a police chief was recorded shouting ‘fire into the crowd', it was the turn of Afro Tondelli, 35 years old, to fall. As shown in a photographic document, he was killed in cold blood by a policeman who knelt down to improve his aim..."[16]

As we can see, the forces of order have no regard for the poor, for proletarians who make their demands. Two years later, the same kind of police violence occurred again when there were confrontations in Piazza Statuto in Turin, which broke out on a strictly workers' terrain. The UIL and the SIDA, two unions that had already clearly shown which side they were on, signed separate and hurried factory agreements with the Fiat management that were completely unfavourable to the workers: "6 to 7,000 people, exasperated when they discovered this, met up in the afternoon at Piazza Statuto in front of the UIL offices. For two days the place was to become the theatre for a series of extraordinary confrontations between demonstrators and the police. The former, armed with catapults, sticks and chains, smashed shop fronts and windows, erected rudimentary barricades and repeatedly charged police lines. The latter replied by charging the crowd in jeeps, suffocating the square with tear gas and beating the demonstrators with rifle butts. The confrontations lasted late into the evening on Saturday 7th as well as Monday 9th July 1962. The leaders of the PCI and of the CDIL, Pajetta and Garavini among them, tried in vain to convince the demonstrators to disperse, One thousand demonstrators were arrested and many were informed against. The majority were young workers, mainly from the south."[17]

It is thanks to Dario Lanzardo[18] that we have a clear account of these few days, including official testimonies concerning all the gratuitous violence meted out by the police, not only against the demonstrators but also against anyone who was unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity of Piazza Statuto. If we consider all the massacres carried out by the forces of order against demonstrations of workers in struggle from the end of the war up until the Hot Autumn, then we can really see the difference between the black period of counter-revolution - in which the bourgeoisie had its hands completely free to do what it liked against the working class - and the period of resurgence in the struggle when it was preferable to have recourse first to the weapons of ideological mystification and union sabotage. In fact what was to change with the Hot Autumn, understood as a sign of the resurgence of class struggle nationally and internationally, was the balance of forces between the classes both nationally and internationally. This is the key to understanding the new historic phase that opened up at the end of the 1960s and not some so-called democratisation of state institutions. From this point of view, the position adopted by the PCI concerning the confrontations is a perfect illustration of the bourgeois political terrain upon which it had based itself for four decades: "... Unità of 9th July defined the revolt as ‘attempts at provocation on the part of hooligans' and the demonstrators as ‘uncontrolled and exasperated elements', ‘small groups of irresponsible elements', ‘young louts', ‘anarchists, internationalists'."[19]

From the student autumn to the Hot Autumn

To speak of the Hot Autumn is rather restrictive when we are dealing with an historic event which, as we can see, has its roots in a dynamic at a local and international level going  back several years. In addition, the movement did not last just one season, as was the case with the French May, but rather continued at a high level for at least two years, from 1968 to 1969, with repercussions that lasted until the end of 1973.

The proletarian movement during these two years, and even during those that followed, was deeply marked by the outbreak of student struggles, the Italian 68. This is why it is important to go back over each episode in order to follow the impressive development in the maturation of the class struggle as it returned to the historic scene in Italy.

The student 68

Signs of the change in the historic period resounded strongly in the schools and especially in the universities. The economic boom which took place in Italy following the end of the war, as in the rest of the world, had made it possible for workers' families to enjoy a less wretched standard of living and for businesses to count on a massive enlargement of their workforce. The young generation of the less well-to-do strata could now study at university in order to train for employment, gain a broader culture and have some hope of acquiring a more satisfying social position than that of their parents. However, the entrance en masse into university of less privileged strata not only changed the social composition of the student population; it also devalued the image of the graduate. They were no longer educated to fill management posts, as they had been up till then, but rather to be integrated into the organisation of production - industrial or commercial - where individual initiative is more and more limited. This social and cultural framework explains, at least in part, the reasons behind the youth movement in these years: the contesting of dogmatic knowledge retained by a privileged caste of university mandarins using methods from the Middle Ages, of meritocracy, of sectional divisions, of a society seen as ageing and closed in on itself. The student demonstrations had begun as early as February 1967 with the occupation of the Palazzo Campana in Turin, a movement that gradually spread to all the other universities from the Normale in Pisa, the sociology faculty in Trento, to the catholic faculty in Milan and then moving towards the south over several months until the final explosion in 1968. In this period the political groups with a large following that became known in the 1970s had not yet come into being but this is the period which gave birth to the various political cultures that were at the foundations of these groups. The experiences that left the most profound mark on what was to come were certainly those  in Pisa, where there was an important group of elements who already had a publication, Il Potere Operaio (called " Pisan" to distinguish it from the other one of the same name brought out by Classe Operaia). Il Potere Operaio was already a workers' paper in as far as it was published as a factory paper of Olivetti in Ivrea. In fact the Pisa group, in which are to be found the names of the best known leaders during these years, had from the beginning distinguished itself because it talked of the working class and intervention within it. Generally there was a tendency within the student movement of the time to orient itself towards the working class and to make it its main reference point and ideal partner, although this was more or less explicit. Most towns were won over by the student contestation and delegations of students went regularly to the factory gates to hand out leaflets and generally to form an alliance with the world of the working class, which was increasingly felt to be where they belonged. This identification of students as part of the working class was even theorised by some parts of the movement that were more workerist.

The development of workers' struggles

As we have said, 1968 in Italy also marked the beginning of important workers' struggles: "In spring 68 there was a series of struggles in factories throughout Italy, whose aim was wage increases that were the same for everyone and that were to compensate for the 'meagre' agreements of 1966. Among the first factories to mobilise there was Fiat, where the workers carried out the largest conflict for over 14 years, and in Milan strikes broke out in Borletti, Ercole Marelli, Magneti Marelli, Philips, Sit SIEMENS, Innocenti, Autelco, Triplex, Brollo, Raimondi , Mezzera, Rhodex, Siae Microelettronica, Seci, Ferrotubli, Elettrocondutture, Autobianchi, AMF, Fachini, Tagliaferri, Termokimik, Minerva, Amsco and another score of small enterprises, (...) At the beginning the struggle was led by old activists and by the unions outside the factories and so it was led in a fairly authoritarian way. But after a month, young workers made their presence felt, who  'strongly criticised the unionists and the members of the CI[20] for the way they were struggling and on the stages of the struggle', and they qualitatively changed the way of mobilising, introducing tough pickets and internal processions to force white collar workers to strike. On one occasion these workers spontaneously prolonged a strike for several hours and forced the unions to support them. This breeze of youth produced massive participation in the struggle, the number of strike hours multiplied, demonstrations took place on the streets of Sesto San Giovanni, going so far as to bash in the door of the building which housed the management. The strikes continued even though the Assolombarda made it a condition for the opening up of negotiations that they stop: there was total participation on the part of the manual workers and hardly any of the office workers were against".[21]

From then on everything escalated: "The balance sheet of ‘69 at Fiat is a war bulletin: 20 million strike hours, 277,000 vehicles lost, a boom (37%) in sales of foreign cars".[22]

What changed radically with the struggles of the Hot Autumn was the balance of forces within the factory. The worker, who was exploited and humiliated by the speed of production, controls and continual punishments, entered into daily conflict with the boss. The initiatives of the workers were no longer concerned with the number of strike hours but with how to conduct the strikes. There rapidly developed a logic of refusing to work that was equivalent to an attitude of refusing to collaborate with the employers' strategy for the workplace, while remaining firmly anchored to the defence of workers' living conditions. There followed a new way of thinking about how to conduct the strike, which aimed at using minimum effort on the part of the workers to inflict maximum damage on the bosses. This was the wildcat strike in which only a small number of workers struck but the whole cycle of production was dependent on them. By rotating the group who would strike, it was possible to paralyse the factory with the minimum of "cost" to the workers.

Another expression of the changed balance of forces between the working class and the bosses were the processions within the factories. At the beginning these demonstrations took place in the long corridors and passageways of the Fiat premises and those of other important industries and were an expression of protest. They later became a way to convince those who were hesitating, the white collar workers in particular, to join the strike: "The internal processions always began from the coachwork department, often from the varnishing workshop. The news went out that some workshop had gone back to work or else that the strike breakers had been concentrated in office 16, that of the women. So we would go and gather everyone. We trawled them in. Mirafiori is composed of corridors and in such narrow places no-one can escape. Soon it was no longer necessary: as soon as people saw us they slowed down the chain and followed us."[23]

On the question of workers' representation, the period was characterised by the slogan: "we are all delegates", that  is to refuse all union mediation and impose a direct balance of forces upon the bosses by means of the workers' struggle. It is important to return to this slogan which was diffused throughout the struggles and which would impregnate the class struggle for a long time during this period. This is a valuable experience especially given the doubts that proletarian minorities sometimes have today when they want to struggle outside the unions but cannot see how to do so as they are not recognised by the state.

This was not a problem for the workers during the Hot Autumn. When it was necessary, they struggled, went on strike outside of the unions and against their directives but they did not always have an immediate aim. In this phase the workers' struggle was the expression of enormous combativity, of a long repressed will to respond  to the intimidation of the bosses; it did not necessarily need immediate grounds or objectives in order to burst forth; it was its own stimulant; creating a relationship of force, gradually changing the attitude of the working class. The unions had no more than an ephemeral presence in all of this. In fact the unions - and the bourgeoisie generally in this period - were pushed to one side by the strength of the working class struggle. They did the only thing they could do: they tried to keep their heads above water, follow the movement and try not to be too much overtaken by it. On the other hand, such a strong reaction within the class also showed that the unions were not really rooted in the proletariat and so not able to prevent or block the combativity as they can today. This does not mean that there was a deep anti-union consciousness in the working class. In fact the workers acted in spite of the unions, not against them, although there were significant developments at the level of consciousness, as can be seen from the Unitary Rank-and-file Committees (CUB) in the Milan region: "the unions are 'professional negotiators' who, together with the so-called workers' parties, have chosen the path of reform, that is the path of global and definitive agreement with the bosses".[24]

The years 1968-69 were a steam-roller of strikes and demonstrations with moments of acute tension such as the struggles in the Syracuse region, which produced the confrontation in Avola,[25]  or those of Battipaglia which gave rise to violent confrontations.[26] However, the conflicts of Corso Traiano in Turin in July 1969 certainly represent a historic step in this dynamic. On this occasion the movement of the class in Italy made an important step forward: the coming together of the workers' movement with that of the student vanguard. As the students had more time at their disposal and were more mobile, they managed to make an important contribution to the working class in struggle, which in turn became aware of its alienation through the medium of these newly-awakening young people, and showed its willingness to do-away with wage slavery. The link between these two worlds gave a strong impulse to the struggles of 1969, particularly those of Corso Traiano. We are quoting a long extract from a leaflet drafted on 5th July by the Turin workers' assembly, not only because it gives an excellent account of what happened but it also has great political value as a document:

"The events of 3rd July are not an isolated incident or an uncontrolled outbreak of revolt. They came after fifty days of struggle that involved an enormous number of workers, completely blocked the production cycle, represented the highest point in the level of political and organisational autonomy that the workers' struggles have attained up to now by destroying any possibility for the unions to control them.

"Having been thrown out of the workers' struggle, the unions tried to get it to go out of the factories towards the outside and then regain control by calling for a 24 hour general strike to freeze  rents. But once more the initiative of the workers got the upper hand. Symbolic strikes that turn into rest days with one or two processions here and there are only of use to the bureaucrats. In the hands of the workers the general strike becomes an opportunity to unite, to generalise the struggle taking place in the factory. The press refuses to talk about what is happening at Fiat or it lies about it. This is the moment to break this conspiracy of silence, to come out of our isolation, to communicate to everyone the real facts behind the experience of the workers at Mirafiori.

"Hundreds of workers and students decided in an assembly to call for a large demonstration on the day of the strike which was to start off from Mirafiori and proceed to the workers' districts in order to unite the workers of the various factories. (...)

"This was too much for the bosses. Before the procession could even form up, an army of tough guys and police threw themselves without warning into the crowd, coshing, arresting, throwing tear gas canisters (...) After a short while, it was not only the worker and student vanguard who were confronting them but the entire proletarian population of the district. Barricades went up and there were charges in response to those of the police. The battle went on for hours and hours and the police were forced to retreat. (...)

"In this process, the control and mediation of the unions was thrown overboard. Apart from some partial aims, the struggle meant:

-          the rejection of  capitalist organisation of the work,

-          the rejection of the wage being tied to the boss' need to produce,

-          the rejection of exploitation both inside and outside the factory,

"The strikes, the processions, the internal assemblies had blown away the divisions between the workers and matured the autonomous organisation of the class by adopting these aims:

-          always maintain the initiative within the factory against the unions,

-          an increase on the basic wage of 100 lire, the same for all,

-          the second grade for everyone,

-          a real reduction in working hours.

"(...) In fact the struggle of the Fiat workers has re-produced  at a massive level aims that had already been formulated in 1968-69 during the struggles of the largest concentrations of workers in Italy, from Milan to Porto Marghera, from Ivrea to Valdagno. These aims were:

-          a large increase in the basic wage equal for all,

-          the abolition of grades,

-          the drastic and immediate reduction in working hours with no loss of wages,

-          immediate and complete equality between manual and white collar workers."[27]

As we have already said, a whole series of strengths coming out of the Hot Autumn find an echo in this leaflet. First of all, the idea of equality, that wage rises should be the same for everyone, independent of their grade and not subject to the profitability of the work. Secondly, the recuperation  of free time for the workers, in order for them to have a life, to engage in politics, etc. Consequently, the demand for a reduction in working hours and the rejection of piecework.

This same leaflet states that, on the basis of these elements, the Turin workers held an assembly following the confrontations of 3rd July, in which they proposed that all workers in Italy embark upon a new and more radical phase of the class struggle that, on the basis of the aims put forward by the workers themselves, would develop the political unification of all the experiences of autonomous struggle up until then.

With this aim in mind, a national gathering of committees and workers' vanguards was convoked in Turin:

1. To compare and unite the various experiences of struggle on the basis of the significance of the Turin struggle

2. To bring out the aims of the new phase of class confrontation, which should take as a starting point the material conditions of the workers and should encompass all capitalist social organisations.

On 26/27 July at the Turin Palasport there was held a "national gathering of the workers' vanguard". Workers from the whole of Italy gave an account of the strikes and demonstrations, spoke and put forward demands such as the abolition of grades, the reduction of working hours to 40, equal wage increases for everyone in absolute terms (not a percentage) and recognition of parity with white collar workers. "The whole of Italian industry was represented: in order of intervention, after Mirafiore, Marghera petrochemicals, la Dalmine and Il Nuovo Pignone from Massa, Solvay from Rossignano, Muggiano from La Spezia, Piaggio from Pontedera, Italsider from Piombino, Saint Gobain from Pisa, Fatme, Autovox, Sacet and Voxon from Rome, SNAM, Farmitalia, Sit Siemens, Alfa Romeo and Ercole Marelli from Milan, Ducati and Weber from Bologna, Fiat de Marina in Pisa, Montedison from Ferrare, Ignis from Varese, Necchi from Pavia, Sir from Porto Torres, technicians from the RAI in Milan, Galileo Oti from Florence, the unitary rank-and-file committees from Pirelli, the dockyards of La Spezia".[28] This was something never seen before: a national assembly of the workers' vanguard from all over Italy, a moment in which the working class affirmed itself and which can only be experienced when there is a great increase in workers' combativity, as was the case during the Hot Autumn.

In the following months what remains in historic memory as the "Hot Autumn" unfolded along the same lines. The number of episodes of struggle, about which interesting photographic documentation can be found on the site of La Repubblica,[29] followed on one after another at an incredible rate. The following is a list that is by no means exhaustive:

-          2/09: strike of manual and white collar workers at Pirelli for production premiums and union rights. At Fiat, the workers of departments 32 and 33 at Mirafiori go into struggle against union directives over factory discrimination concerning grade changes;

-          4/09: Agnelli the Fiat boss suspends 30,000 workers;

-          5/09: the attempt of the union management to isolate the vanguard workers at Fiat fails, Agnelli is forced to withdraw the suspensions;

-          6/09: more than two million metal workers employed in construction and the chemical industry enter  into struggle for the renewal of the wage contract;

-          11/09: following the breakdown in negotiations over their new contract on 8th September, a million metal workers  go on strike throughout Italy. In Turin, 100,000 blocked Fiat;

-          12/09: national strike of building workers; all building sites in the country are closed. Demonstrations of steel workers in Turin, Milan and Taranto;

-          16-17/09: 48 hour national strike of chemical workers, national strike in the cemeteries and another day of struggle by building workers;

-          22/09: demonstration of 6,000 workers of Alfa Romeo in Milan. A day of struggle of metal workers in Turin, Venice, Modena and Cagliari;

-          23-24/09: another 48 hour general strike by the cemetery workers;

-          25/09: lock-out at Pirelli, indefinite suspension of 12,000 workers. An immediate response from the workers who block all of the group's plants;

-          26/09: demonstration of metal workers in Turin, where a procession of 50,000 starts out from Fiat. General strike in Milan and demonstrations of hundreds of thousands of workers who force Pirelli to end the lock-out. Processions of tens of thousands of workers in Florence and Bari;

-          29/09: demonstrations of metal, chemical and building workers in Porto Marghera, Brescia and Genoa;

-          30/09: strike of building workers in Rome, demonstrations of 15,000 metal workers in Livorno;

-          7/10: metal workers' strike in the Milan province, 100,000 workers from nine processions come together in Piazza Duomo;

-          8/10: national general strike of chemical workers. Strike in the Terni region. Demonstrations of metal mechanics in Rome, Sestri, Piombino, Marina di Pisa and L'Aquila;

-          9/10: 60,000 metal workers strike in Genoa. General strike in Friuli Venezia Giulia;

-          10/10: for the first time an assembly is held inside the workshops of Fiat-Mirafiori. Assemblies and processions are also held inside other factories in the group. The police charge the outside of the buildings. Strike at Italsider in Bagnoli against the suspension of 5 workers;

-          16/10: hospital workers, rail workers, postmen, local government workers and day workers enter into struggle for the renewal of their contracts. General strikes take place in the districts of Palermo and Matera;

-          22/10: 40 factories in Milan win the right to hold assemblies;

-          8/11: the building workers contract is signed: it gives a 13% increase on the lowest incomes, the gradual reduction of working hours to 40 and the right to hold assemblies on the building sites;

-          13/11: very tough confrontations between workers and the police in Turin;

-          25/11: general strike in the chemical industry;

-          28/11: in Rome hundreds of thousands of metal workers animate one of the largest and most combative demonstrations that has ever taken place in Italy in order to support their demands;

-          3/12: all-out strike of the Fiat car body workers , demonstration of local government workers;

-          7/12: an agreement is reached on the contract in the chemical industry: it provides wage increases of 19,000 lire per month, a 40 hour week over 5 days and three weeks paid leave;

-          8/12: agreement reached on the contract for the metal industry with state participation: the contract provides an increase of 65 lire per hour, the same for all, legal parity between manual and white collar workers, the right to hold assemblies at the workplace during working hours up to 10 hours per year; and a 40 hour week;

-          10/12: general strike of agricultural workers for the national agreement, hundreds of thousands demonstrate throughout Italy. The beginning of the four day strike of workers in the private oil companies for the renewal of their contract;

-          19/12: national strike of industrial workers in support of the metal workers conflict. Another national strike of agricultural workers;

-          23/12: signing of the agreement for the new metal workers contract : it gives wage increases of 65 lire per hour for the manual workers and 13,500 lire per month for the white collar workers, a wage for the 'thirteenth month', the right to hold assemblies in the factory, the recognition of union representatives from the work-place and the reduction of working hours to 40 per week;

-          24/12: the national agreement for the agricultural workers is signed after four months of struggle, it provides the gradual reduction of working hours to 42 per week and 20 days holiday.[30]

This impressive list of struggles was not solely the result of strong pressure from the workers but also showed the marks of union manoeuvres to disperse the struggles by holding separate actions, made possible because the expiry date varied for different contracts in different sectors and workplaces. In this way the bourgeoisie succeeded in preventing the profound social discontent from exploding into a generalised conflagration.

This enormous development in combativity, accompanied by significant moments of clarification within the working class, also encountered other serious obstacles in the period to come. The Italian bourgeoisie, like that in other countries when confronted with the resurgence in class struggle, did not stand idly by. In addition to frontal attacks by the police, it tried to gradually encircle the movement using other  means. What we will show in the second part of this article is that the capacity of the bourgeoisie to take back control of the situation was based mainly on the weaknesses of a proletarian movement that, in spite of its enormous combativity, had not yet acquired a clear class consciousness and in which even the vanguard did not have the maturity and the clarity necessary to play its role.

Ezechiele (1st November 09)

[1].   From July 1969 and lasting several months.

[2].   See: International Review n° 133 and 134, "May 68 and the Revolutionary Perspective" (parts 1 and 2I), 2008.

[3].   See: "Class Struggle in Eastern Europe (1970-1980)", International Review n° 100.

[4].   From 1973 to 1974, the Cordobazo, the Mendoza strike and the wave of struggles that overwhelmed the country represented the key to the evolution of the social situation at the time. These struggles did not have an insurrectional character but they did signal an awakening of the proletariat in South America. See: "Popular revolt in Argentina; only the self-affirmation of the proletariat on its own terrain can drive back the bourgeoisie." International Review n° 109, 2002.

[5].   See: "Notes on the history of the United States imperialist policy from the Second World War", part 2. International Review n° 114.

[6].   "In this way was born the slogan: ‘the University is our Vietnam'; the Vietnamese guerrillas are fighting against American imperialism, the students make their revolution against power and academic authority". Alessandro Silj, Malpaese, criminalità,corruzione e politica nell'Italia della prima Republica 1943-1994 Donzelli edition, Rome 1994, p.92.

[7].   See "Che Guevara: mythe e réalité (à propos de couriers d'un lecteur)", in Révolution Internationale n° 384; « Quelques commentaries sur une apologie d'Ernesto "Che" Guevara (à propos d'un livre de Besancenot)", in Révolution Internationale n° 388.

[8].   See: "The Jewish/Arab conflict: the position of the Internationalists in the 1930s",  Bilan n° 30 and 31, in International Review n° 110; "Notes on the history of the imperialist conflicts in the Middle East", parts 1,2 and 3,  in International Review n° 115, 117 and 118; "Affrontements Hamas/Fatah; la bourgeoisie palestinienne est aussi sanguinaire que les autres", in Révolution Internationale n° 381.

[9]. See: "Le maoisme: un pur produit de la contre-révolution", in Révolution Internationale n° 371; "China 1928-1949: a link in the chain of imperialist war (I and II), in International Review n° 81 and 84; "Cina: il capitalismo di stato, dalle origini alla Rivoluzione Culturale" (I and II) in Rivoluzione Internazionale n° 5 and 6.

[10].  See: Silvia Castillo, Controcultura e politica nel Sessantotto Italiano.

[11].  Aldo Cazzullo, I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione, 1968-1978, Storia critica di LottaContinua. Edited by Sperling and Kupfer, p.13.

[12].  Luca Barbieri, Il caso 7 aprile. Cap III, http.//

[13].  Interview given by  Rita Di Leo in L'operaismo degli anni sessanta. From ‘Quaderni Rossi' a ‘classe operaia'. Giuseppe Trotta and Fabio Milana. DeriveApprodi edition.

[14].  See: Luca Barbieri, Il caso 7 aprile. Cap.III,

[15].  Emiliano Mentasti, La guardia rossa raconta. Storia del Comitato operaio della Magneti Marelli, p.25, Colibri Edition.

[16].  Giorgio Frasca Polara, Tambroni e il luglio "caldo" del 60,

[17]La rivolta operaia di piazza Statuto del 1962.

[18].  Dario Lanzardo, La rivolta di piazza Statuto, Torino, Luglio 1962, Feltrinelli.

[19]La rivolta operaia di piazza Statuto del 1962,

[20].  CI is an abbreviation for the Internal Commissions, which were officially structures representing the workers when there were conflicts in the workplace. In fact they were an expression of union control over the workers. They were in operation up until the Hot Autumn and were later replaced by the factory councils (CdF).

[21]. Emilio Mentasti, La guardia rossa racconta. Storia del Comitato operaio della Magneti Marelli, p.37, Colibri Edition.

[22]. Aldo Cazzulo, I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione. 1968-1978. Storia critica di Lotta Continua, pp.75-76, edited by Sperling and Kupfer.

[23]. Ibid, p.60.

[24].  Document of the CUB of Pirelli (Bicocca), "IBM and Sit Siemens", quoted in Alessandro Silj, Mai più senza fucile, Vallecchi, Florence 1977, pp.82-84.

[25]. "The struggle of the agricultural workers in the Syracuse province on 24th November, with the participation of the agricultural workers of Avola, demanded an increase in the daily wage, the elimination of the difference in wages and working hours between the two zones into which the province was divided, the introduction of a law to guarantee that contracts were respected, the setting-up of control commissions with parity of representation, the latter had been obtained in the 1966 struggle but had never worked. (...) The agricultural workers set up roadblocks and were charged by the police. On 2nd December Avola participated en masse in the general strike. During the night the dayworkers set up road blocks on the main road to Noto and the other workers were with them. In the morning the women and children arrived. At about 14.00 hours the Deputy Chief of Police of Syracuse, Samperisi, gave orders for the Celere company, joined by that of Catania, to attack. (...) That day the Celere brigade sounded the charge three times, shooting into the crowd, who thought that they were firing blanks. The agricultural workers tried to find shelter; some threw stones. This war scene lasted about half an hour. In the end, Piscitello, a communist deputy, piled more than two hundred kilos of shells on the tarmac. The outcome was 2 dayworkers dead, Angelo Sigona and Giuseppe Scibilia, and 48 wounded, 5 seriously." (

[26]. "We went out onto the street with the usual generosity of the young by the side of workers, male and female, who were striking against the closure of the tabacco and sugar industries. The closure of these enterprises, and also those subsidiary to them, meant crisis for the whole town, as for about half the population they were the sole means of income. The general strike was the only alternative and was felt to be such and so the whole town, including us students, participated. Many of us, although not from Battipaglia, felt the need to join in because we understood the importance of these two industries for the town's economy. There was also another reason for the general strike; it was an opportunity to show our solidarity with those from the tabacco factory who had been occupying the premises in Santa Lucia for nearly twelve days. The spectre of crisis hung over the town; it had already been felt with the closure of some canning factories and looked like being very serious for thousands of workers who would inevitably lose their jobs. (...) Very quickly there were moments of tension and, as often happens, these were transformed into real movements. Battipaglia became the stage for violent confrontation, barricades were erected, all road  exits were blocked and the station was occupied. The police charged and what was supposed to be a great day of solidarity with those who were trying to keep their jobs became a popular insurrection. The balance sheet: two dead, hundreds wounded, dozens of vehicles burnt (those of the police and private ones) and incalculable damage. (...) To gain control of a wounded and furious town it took the forces of order about twenty hours". (Eye witness account reported in the blog:


[28].  Aldo Cazzullo, I ragazzi che volevano fare la rivoluzione, 1968-1978. Storia critica di Lotta Continua,  p.67, edited by Sperling and Kupfer.


[30]. From the site:

Historic events: 

What are workers' councils? (Part 1): Why did workers' councils emerge in 1905?

On March 2nd 1919, at the inaugural session of the First Congress of the Communist International, Lenin argued that the "Soviet system" (that's Russian for workers' councils) having previously been "a Latin phrase" to the great mass of workers, had entered into everyday language in many countries and, above all, was a more common form of struggle for workers; he read out a report in an English bourgeois newspaper that said: "The British government had just met the Birmingham Council of Workers' Deputies and had expressed its readiness to recognise the Councils  as industrial organisations." [1]

Today, 90 years later, comrades from different countries write and ask us: "What are workers' councils?" acknowledging that it is a subject which they know virtually nothing about and of which they would like to know more.

The weight of the most terrible counter-revolution in history, the difficulties which, since 1968, have prevented the politicisation of the struggles of the working class; the falsification, or the total silence that the media and bourgeois culture imposes on the historic experience of the proletariat - all this means that words such as soviet or workers' council which were once so familiar to generations of workers in 1917-23, are now something alien to them or are interpreted in a completely different way from the original meaning. [2]

This article will try and answer four simple questions: What are the workers' councils? Why did they suddenly appear? To what historical needs did they respond? Are they still relevant today? In answering these questions, we will use the historic experience of our class, an experience that comprises the revolutionary combat of 1905 and 1917 as well as the debates and the writings of militant revolutionaries like Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, Lenin and Pannekoek.

The historical conditions that gave rise to the workers' councils

Why did the workers' councils appear in 1905 and not in 1871 at the time of the Paris Commune? [3]

We can only understand the emergence of the workers' councils during the Russian Revolution of 1905 by analysing all the relevant factors: the historic period, the direct experience of proletarian struggle itself, and the intervention of revolutionary organisations.

With regard to the period, capitalism was at the pinnacle of its evolution, but had been showing more and more signs of entering into decline, particularly at the imperialist level. Trotsky, in his works 1905 and Results and Prospects to which we will refer, highlights this: "By drawing all the countries together through its mode of production and commerce, capitalism made the world a single economic and political organisation"; and more specifically, "This gives the current events an immediate international character, and a global perspecive. The political emancipation of Russia under the leadership of the working class will raise the class to hitherto unknown historical heights and will bring about the downfall of capitalism, through which history has realised its goals."[4] The massive movements and general strikes produced by this new period had erupted across the world before 1905: general strikes in Spain in 1902 and in Belgium in 1903 and in Russia itself at various times.

We come to the second factor, the struggle itself. The workers' councils did not emerge out of the blue, like lightning on a clear day. In the preceding years, there had been many strikes in Russia from 1896 onwards: the general strike of textile workers in St. Petersburg in 1896 and 1897; major strikes in 1903 and 1904 that shook the whole of southern Russia, etc. These experiences show tendencies towards spontaneous mobilisation, in which organs of struggle that no longer correspond to the typical union forms of struggle are created, preparing the ground for the struggles of 1905: "... the history of the present period of mass struggles begins with those general strikes in St. Petersburg. They are therefore important for the problem of the mass strike because they already contain, in the germ, all the principle factors of the later mass strikes." [5]

Furthermore, with regard to the third factor, the proletarian parties (the Bolsheviks and other tendencies) had obviously not made any previous propaganda on the theme of the workers' councils since their appearance had taken them by surprise; nor did they set up intermediate structures of organisation in preparation. And yet, their incessant work of political propaganda had greatly contributed to their emergence. This is Rosa Luxemburg's view of the spontaneous movements such as the textile workers' strike in St. Petersburg in 1896 and 1897: "The next occasion of the movement was wholly accidental, even unimportant, its outbreak elementary; but in the success of the movement, it expressed the fruits of the agitation, extending over several years, of the Social Democracy..."[6]

In this regard, it rigorously clarifies the role of revolutionaries: "To fix beforehand the cause and the moment from and in which the mass strikes in Germany will break out is not in the power of Social Democracy, because it is not in its power to bring about historical situations by resolutions at party congresses. But what it can and must do is to make clear the political tendencies, when they once appear, and to formulate them as a resolute and consistent tactics." [7]

This analysis provides an understanding of the nature of the great movement which shook Russia during 1905 and which reached its decisive stage in the last three months of that year, from October to December, during which the development of workers' councils became widespread.

The revolutionary movement of 1905 had its roots in the unforgettable events of "Bloody Sunday", January 22nd 1905.[8]  This movement experienced its first reflux in March 1905 before re-emerging along various paths in May and July.[9]  During this period, however, it took the form of a series of spontaneous explosions with a poor level of organisation. By contrast, from September, the question of the general organisation of the working class had come to the forefront: this was the start of a phase of increasing politicisation of the masses, in which we saw the limits of the struggle for immediate demands but also the exasperation caused both by the brutality of Tsarism and the hesitations of the liberal bourgeoisie.[10]

The debate among the masses

We have seen the historical conditons in which the first Soviets appeared. But what were the determining factors in this? Were they created through the deliberate actions of a bold minority? Or, alternatively, were they the direct product of the objective conditions?

If the revolutionary propaganda carried out over a number of years did, as was said, contribute to the emergence of the Soviets, and if Trotsky played a leading role in the Petersburg Soviet, their appearance was neither the direct result of the agitation or organisational proposals of the marxist parties (divided at this time into Bolsheviks and Mensheviks), nor did it result from initiatives of anarchist groups as Voline claimed in his book The Unknown Revolution.[11]  Voline[12] believed the first Soviet appeared in between the middle and the end of February 1905. Without doubting the credibility of his facts, we can say that this meeting - that Voline himself called "private" - would have been a contributory factor in the emergence of the Soviets, but did not constitute their founding act.

It is customary to regard the Soviet of Ivanovo-Vosnesensk as the first or one of the first.[13] In total, 40 to 50 Soviets were identified, together with some soldiers and peasants soviets. Anweiler emphasises their disparate origins: "Some were modelled on older organisations such as strike committees and deputies assemblies; others were formed directly, initiated by Social Democatic party organisations, which then exercised considerable influence in the soviet. Frequently boundaries between a simple strike comitee and a fully developed council of workers deputies were fluid, and only in the main revolutionary centres with considerable concentrations of workers - such as (apart from St Petersburg) Moscow, Odessa, Novorossiysk, and the Donets Basin - were the councils thoroughly organised".[14]

Thus, the paternity of the Soviets can not be attributed to this or that person or minority; they emerged spontaneously from out of nowhere. In essence, they were the collective work of the class: multiple initiatives, discussions, proposals arising from here or there, all woven into the evolution of events, and with the active intervention of the revolutionaries, resulted in the birth of the Soviets. Looking more closely at this process, we can identify two determining factors: the massive scale of debate and the increased radicalisation of struggles.

The noticeable maturation of consciousness within the masses from September 1905 expressed itself in the development of a great appetite for debate. The heated discussions spreading through the factories, universities, neighborhoods, were a "new" phenomenon that increased significantly during the month of September. Trotsky provides some evidence: "... that perfectly free popular gatherings were taking place in the walls of universities, while Trepov's[15] unlimited terror reigned within the streets, was one of the most astonishing political paradoxes of the autumn months of 1905." Increasingly these meetings were attended by workers en masse: "‘The people' filled the corridors, lecture rooms and halls. The workers went directly from the factory to university", says Trotsky, adding the following: "The official telegraph agency, horrified by the audience that gathered in the assembly hall of the Vladimir University, reported that apart from students, the crowd consisted of ‘a multitude of extraneous persons of both sexes, secondary school pupils, adolescents from the town's private schools, workers, and a miscellaneous rabble of people and tramps'"[16].

But it was not at all a "miscellaneous rabble" as the news agency scornfully claimed, but a collective group that discussed and reflected in an orderly and methodical manner, maintaining a strict discipline and a maturity that even the bourgeois newspaper columnist Rouss (Russia) recognised, as Trotsky notes: "Do you know what astonished me most of all at the university meeting? The extraordinary exemplary order. Soon after I had arrived, an interval was announced in the assembly hall and I went for a stroll down the corridor. A univeristy corridor is rather like a street. All the lecture rooms off the corridor were full of people, and independent sectional meetings were taking place inside them. The corridor itself was packed to overflowing: crowds were moving back and forth (...) One might have thought that one was attending a ‘reception', only a rather more serious one than these affairs usually are. And yet this was the people, the real genuine people, with hands coarsened by hard manual work, with that earth-coloured complexion that people get from spending days in unhealthy, airless premises."[17]

We can observe the same discipline in the industrial town of Ivanovo-Vosnesensk, referred to above, from the month of May: "The plenary sessions take place every morning at nine o'clock. When this meeting [of the Soviet] ended, the workers' general assembly began looking at all the issues connected to the strike. There were progress reports on the negotiations with employers and authorities. After the discussion, the Soviet's proposals are submitted to the assembly. Then, the party activists made stirring speeches on the situation facing the working class and the meeting continued until exhaustion set in. At this point, the crowd began to sing revolutionary songs and the assembly was terminated. Every day's the same."[18]

The radicalisation of struggles

A small strike that broke out on September 19th in the Sitin print shop in Moscow would light the fuse to the massive October general strike in which the Soviets became widespread. Solidarity with the Sitin print shop brought more than 50 Moscow print shops out on strike, resulting in a general meeting of printers on September 26th, where the name Soviet or council was adopted. The strike spread to other sectors: bakeries, metallurgical and textiles industries. Agitation won the support of the railway workers on one side, and the printers in St. Petersburg on the other, demonstrating solidarity with their comrades in Moscow.

Another organised front arose unexpectedly: a railway delegates' conference on retirement funds opened in St. Petersburg on September 20th. Departing from its agenda, the conference launched an appeal to all sectors of workers to organise joint meetings and put forward economic and political demands. Encouraged by the telegrams of support from across the country, the conference announced another meeting for October 9th.

Shortly afterwards, on October 3rd, "A meeting of workers' delegates from the printing, engineering, cabinet-making and other trades adopted a decision to  form a general council (Soviet) of all Moscow workers."[19]

The railway strike, which broke out spontaneously on a few lines of the rail network, became a general strike from October 7th. In this context, the meeting called for the 9th was turned into "an extraordinary meeting of the Petersburg delegates' congress of railway personnel [where] slogans of the railway strike were formulated and immediately disseminated by telegraph to all lines. They were the following: eight-hour day, civil liberties, amnesty, Constituent Assembly".[20]

There were very intense debates in the mass meetings at the university on the on-going situation, real-life experiences and the alternatives the future opened up, but in October the situation changed: the debates did not die down, quite the contrary, they matured into an open struggle, which, in turn, began to establish a general organisation, which not only led the struggle but guided and cohered the massive debate. The need to regroup, unite and to unify the various centres of the strikes was raised very clearly by the Moscow workers. The congress of railway workers had been able to provide a program of economic and political demands in relation to the situation and in accord with the real practicalities facing the working class. Debate, unified organisation, a programme of struggle: these were the three pillars on which the soviets were built. So it is clear then that it's the convergence of initiatives and proposals from different sectors of the working class that gave rise to the soviets and absolutely not the "plans" of some minority. The soviets were the concrete expression of what, some 60 years earlier in the Communist Manifesto, looked like a utopian formulation: "All previous historical movements were movements of minorities. The proletarian movement is the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority".

The Soviets, organs of revolutionary struggle

"The first meeting of what was to become the Soviet was held on the evening of the 13th, in the Technological Institute. Not more than thirty or forty delegates attended. It was decided immediately to call upon the proletariat of the capital to proclaim a political general strike and to elect delegates"[21]

This Soviet launched the following appeal, written at this first meeting: "The working class has resorted to the final, powerful weapon of the world workers' movement - the general strike ... Decisive events are going to occur in Russia in the next few days. They will determine the destiny of the working class for many years ahead; we must meet these events with full readiness, united in our common Soviet ... ".[22]

This passage shows the general vision and broad perspective of the body that was newly born from the struggle. It expresses, in a simple way, a vision that is clearly political and in tune with the essential being of the working class, allying itself to the international workers' movement. At the same time, this consciousness is an expression of and an active factor in the extension of the strike to all sectors and to all parts of the country, becoming a general strike effectively from October 12th. The strike paralysed the economy and social life, but the Soviet ensured that it didn't  paralyse the working class struggle itself. As Trotsky shows: "When it needed news bulletins of the revolution, it (the strike) opened a printing works; it used the telegraph to send out strike instructions; it let trains carrying strikers' delegates pass".[23] The strike "was not a merely temporary interruption of work, a passive protest made with folded arms. It defended itself and, in its defence, passed to the offensive. In a number of towns in the south it erected barricades, seized gun shops, armed itself and offered a heroic if not victorious resistance."[24]

The Soviet was the scene of lively debates that had three axes:

  • What relationship to have with the peasants? As indispensible allies, how and under what conditions can they be integrated into the struggle?
  • What is the role of the army? Will the soldiers desert the repressive machinery of the regime?
  • How will they arm themselves in the coming confrontation with the Tsarist state, which is becoming more and more inevitable?

In the conditions of 1905, these questions could be posed, but not answered. The answers would be provided by the Revolution of 1917. That said, the achievements that came about in 1917 could not have been envisaged without the great battles of 1905.

It's commonly thought that questions like those raised above would only concern small coteries of "revolutionary strategists". Despite this, under the Soviets, there was a massive debate around these questions with the participation and contributions of thousands of workers. Those pedants who consider workers incapable of dealing with  such matters would have found evidence of workers speaking without inhibitions, as passionate and committed experts, letting their intuitions, their feelings, and their conscious understanding built up over the years, pour out into the crucible of collective organisation.  Rosa Luxemburg interpreted it this way: "Under the conditions of the mass strike, the honest family man becomes a romantic revolutionary".

If on the 13th, there were barely 40 delegates at the meeting of the Soviet, subsequently the numbers multiplied day after day. The first decision of any factory that called a strike was to elect a delegate who was given a mandate adopted and clarified by the assembly. Some sectors were hesitant: the textile workers of St. Petersburg, unlike their colleagues in Moscow, would not join the struggle until the 16th. On the 15th "The Soviet worked out a complete range of methods, from verbal appeals to forcible cohersion, to involve non-strikers in the strike. But it turned out to be unnecessary to  resort to extreme methods. Where a printed appeal had no effect, it was enough for a crowd of strikers to appear on the scene - sometimes only a few men - and work was immediately interrupted."[25]

Meetings of the Soviet were the antithesis of a bourgeois parliament or a disputation among academic scholars. "There was no trace of magniloquence, that ulcer of representational institutions! The questions under discussion - the spreading of the strike and demands to be addressed to the Duma - were of a purely practical nature and were debated briefly, energetically and in a businesslike manner. One felt that every atom of time was accounted for. The slightest tendency towards rhetoric was firmly checked by the chairman with the stern approval of the entire meeting."[26]

This lively and practical debate, at once profound and concrete, revealed a transformation in the consciousness and the social psychology of the workers and was a powerful factor in developing these. Consciousness is the collective understanding of the social situation and its perspectives, of the real power that comes from mass action, and of the need to set goals, distinguish friends from enemies, and elaborate a vision of the future world. But at the same time social psychology is a factor that is both distinct from but that exists alongside consciousness; a factor that is expressed in the moral and living attitudes of workers, in their contagious solidarity, in their empathy with others, in their open-mindedness and learning and in their selfless devotion to the common cause.

This mental transformation may appear utopian and impossible to those who only see workers through the prism of everyday life where they may appear as atomised robots without the least initiative or collective sentiment, destroyed by the weight of competition and rivalry. It's the experience of massive struggle and the development of the workers' councils that is the engine of such a transformation, as Trotsky says: "Socialism does not aim at creating a socialist psychology as a pre-requisite to socialism but at creating socialist conditions of life as a pre-requisite to socialist psychology."[27]

The general assemblies and the councils elected by them and responsible to them became both the brain and heart of the struggle. The brain, so that thousands of human beings could think aloud and could take decisions after a period of reflection. The heart, so that these beings could stop seeing themselves lost in a sea of strangers, unknown and potentially hostile to each other, and become an active part of a broad community that unites them all and where everyone feels mutual solidarity and support.

By building on these solid foundations, the Soviet established the proletariat as the alternative power to the bourgeois state. It became increasingly recognised as a social force: "As the October strike developed, so the Soviet naturally came more and more to the political forefront. Its importance grew literally from hour to hour. The industrial proletariat was the first to rally around it. The railwaymen's union established close relations with it. The Union of Unions, which joined the strike from October 14, was obliged to place itself under the Soviet's authority almost from the start. Numerous strike committees (...) adapted their actions to the Soviet's decisions."[28]

Many anarchists and councilist writers have made the soviets the standard bearers of a federalist ideology built on local and corporatist autonomy that opposes the supposedly "authoritarian and debilitating" centralism of marxism. A reflection of Trotsky answers these objections: "The role of St. Petersburg in the Russian revolution cannot be compared in any way with that of Paris in the French revolution. The economically primitive nature of France (and, in particular, of the means of communication) on the one hand and administrative centralisation on the other,  allowed the French revolution to be localised - to all intents and purposes - within the walls of Paris. The situation in Russia was entirely different. Capitalist development in Russia had created as many independent centres of revolution as there were centres of major industry - independent, that is, but also intimately linked with one another."[29]

Here we see in practice what proletarian centralisation means. It is the antithesis of the bureaucratic and debilitating centralisation characteristic of the state and of all the exploiting classes throughout history. Proletarian centralisation is not based on the denial of initiative and spontaneity to its various components; instead  it uses all its resources to aid their development. As Trotsky remarks: "The railways and the telegraph decentralised the revolution despite the centralised character of the state; but, at the same time, they brought unity to all its scattered manifestations. If, as the result of all this, we recognise that Petersburg had the leading voice of the revolution, it does not mean that the revolution was concentrated in Nevsky Prospect or outside the Winter Palace, but only that the slogans and fighting methods of struggle of Petersburg found a mighty revolutionary echo in the country as a whole. "[30]

The Soviet was the backbone of this massive centralisation: "...we must recognise the council, or Soviet of workers' deputies as the cornerstone of all the events", Trotsky continues, "Not only because it is the greatest workers' organisation to be seen in Russia until that time. Not only because the St. Petersburg soviet served as a model for Moscow, Odessa and a number of other cities. But, above all, because this purely class-founded, proletarian organisation was the organisation of the revolution as such. The Soviet was the axis of all events, every thred ran towards it, every call to action emanated from it."[31]

The role of the Soviets at the end of movement

In late October 1905, it was clear that the movement was faced with a choice: either to make the insurrection or to be crushed.

The aim of this article is not to analyse the factors that led to the second outcome.[32] The movement did indeed culminate in defeat and the Tsarist regime - once again in control of the situation - unleashed a brutal crackdown. However, the manner in which the proletariat fought a fierce and heroic but fully conscious battle was preparation for the future. The painful defeat in December 1905 prepared the future revolution of 1917.

The Petersburg Soviet had a decisive role in this: it did everything it could to prepare for an inevitable confrontation in the best possible conditions. It formed workers' patrols, initially defensive in nature (against the punitive expeditions of the Black Hundreds organised by the Tsar and composed of the dregs of society), established arms depots and organised and trained militias.

But at the same time, and learning from the workers' uprising of the 19th century,[33] the Petersburg Soviet insisted that the key to the situation was the attitude of the troops, and that is why it concentrated the bulk of its efforts on deciding how to win the soldiers over to its side.

And, in fact, the appeals and leaflets addressed to the army, the invitations to troops to attend meetings of the Soviet were not wasted. They found an echo to some degree in the growing discontent among the sailors who led the mutiny on the battleship Potemkin (immortalised by the famous movie) or in the uprising of the Kronstadt garrison in October.

In November 1905, the Soviet called a massively supported strike where the objectives were directly political: the ending of martial law in Poland and the abolition of the special military Tribunal prosecuting the sailors and soldiers of Kronstadt. This strike was able to pull in sectors of workers who had never struggled before and won enormous sympathy from soldiers. However, the strike also demonstrated the exhaustion of working class forces and a largely passive attitude among the soldiers and peasants, particularly in the provinces, which led to the failure of the strike.

The Soviet took two seemingly paradoxical measures in October and November that were another contribution in preparing for confrontation. As soon as it understood that the strike in October was over, the Soviet proposed to the workers' assemblies that all the workers go back to work at the same time. This was a demonstration of force that showed the determination and the conscious discipline of the workers. The operation was carried out in November before the movement got weaker. It was a way of conserving energy for the general confrontation to come, showing the enemy the strength and steadfast unity of the combattants.

Once the Russian liberal bourgeoisie became aware of the proletarian threat, it closed ranks around the Tsarist regime. This regime now felt itself in a stronger position and began to systematically hunt down the Soviets. The news spread quickly that the workers' movement in the provinces was in retreat. Despite this, the workers in Moscow launched an insurrection that was only crushed after 14 days of fierce fighting.

The crushing of the insurrection in Moscow was the final act of three hundred days of liberty, fraternity, organisation and community, experienced by "ordinary workers" as the liberal intellectuals liked to call them. During the last two months, these "ordinary workers" had built a simple structure, the Soviets, which was able to respond quickly to events, and which, in no time at all, achieved immense power. But with the end of the revolution, they seemed to have disappeared without trace forever . Apart from revolutionary minorities and groups of advanced workers, no one spoke about them anymore. Yet in 1917, they returned onto the social scene with a recognised purpose and with irresistible force. We will see all this in our next article.

C. Mir, 5/11/09


[1].  Lenin Selected Works Volume X  p.26 (Lawrence and Wishart).

[2]. The phrase "Soviet system" is now associated with the barbaric regime of state capitalism that existed in the former USSR and "the Soviets" is now synonymous with Russian imperialism during the long period of the Cold War (1945-89).

[3]. Despite the fact that Marx recognised the Commune as the "finally discovered form of the dictatorship of the proletariat " and that it was a harbinger of what would later be the Soviets, the Paris Commune is associated more with the organisational forms of radical democracy peculiar to the urban masses during the French Revolution: "The central committee of the National Guard, which headed a system of soldiers councils, took the initiative in proclaiming the Commune. The battalion clubs, as the lowest elements, elected a legion council, each of which sent three representatives to the sixty-member central committee. In addition, provisions were made for a general assembly of delegates from the companies, which was intended to meet once a month" (Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets: the Russian Workers, Peasants and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, Pantheon, 1974, p11-12)

[4]. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, 1906

[5]. Rosa Luxemburg, The Mass Strike, The Political Party and the Trade Unions, Chapter 3, "The Development of the Mass Strike Movement in Russia". Merlin Press, p 23.

[6]. Ibid., p 24.

[7]. Ibid, Chapter 7, "The Role of the Mass Strike in the Revolution", p 70.

[8]. We cannot develop here a chronicle of these events. For this, see International Review n° 120,  "100 years ago: The 1905 Revolution in Russia (I)".

[9]. In her book on  The Mass Strike, Rosa Luxemburg describes and analyses the dynamics of  the movement very clearly, its ups and downs, its moments of advance and sudden retreat.

[10]. Russia, with the global capitalist system at the pinnacle if its development and at the beginning of its decline, was trapped in a contradiction between the burden of feudal Tsarism on capitalist development and the dependency of the liberal bourgeoisie on the bureaucratic apparatus, not only for its own development, but also for maintaining  the repressive fortress required to halt the threat of the proletariat. Read Trotsky ‘s book referred to above.

[11]. " Then one evening when, as usual, there were several men with me - and Nossar was one of us [Nossar was the first president of the Petersburg Soviet in October 1905] - the idea arose among us to create a permanent workers' organisation: a sort of committee or rather a council to watch over events, to serve as a link between all the workers, to inform them on the situation and to be able, when appropriate, to rally the revolutionary forces of the working class around it."

[12]. Voline was an anarchist militant who remained faithful to the proletariat, denouncing the Second World War from an internationalist position.

[13]. It came into being on May 13, 1905 in the industrial city of Ivanovo-Vosnesensk in central Russia. For more details, read the article in International Review n° 122, ‘100 years ago: The 1905 Revolution in Russia (II)'.

[14]. Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets, p47.

[15]. Note: Fyodor Trepov, a soldier by training, was head of the Tsarist police in Warsaw between 1860 and 1861 and between 1863 and 1866. He carried out the same duties in Petersburg in the years 1874-1880. He was known for his brutal methods of repression,  especially the crushing of student rioters at the Technological Institute in January 1874 and the demonstrateurs outside Kazan Cathedral in 1876 (source Wikipedia).

[16]. Trotsky, 1905  "The strike in October, part I", Pelican Books, p100.

[17]. Ibid., p101

[18]. Andres Nin, Los Soviets en Rusia, P. 17, (translated from Spanish by us).

[19]. Trotsky 1905 "The strike of October, part II", p 104.

[20]. Ibid., part III, p106.

[21]. Ibid., "Creation of the Soviet of  Workers Deputies", p 123.

[22]. Ibid., p 123

[23]. Ibid., p 123.

[24]. Ibid., "The strike of October, part VI",  p 112.

[25]. Ibid., "Creation of the Soviet of  Workers' Deputies", p 125.

[26]. Ibid., p 127.

[27]. Trotsky, Results and Prospects, Chap. 7, "The Prerequisites of Socialism".

[28]. Trotsky 1905 "Creation of the Soviet of  Workers Deputies", p 128.

[29]. Ibid., p 121

[30]. Ibid.,. p 121

[31]. Ibid., p 122.

[32]. Look especially at the article in International Review n° 123 , "1905 and the role of the soviets" (part 2).

[33]. Above all, fighting on the barricades, the limits of which Engels was able to understand in his "Introduction" to Marx‘s Class Struggle in France. This "Introduction", written in 1895, became widely known because the criticisms by Engels of the fighting on the barricades was used by the opportunists of the Social Democrats to endorse the rejection of violence in favour of the exclusive use of parliamentary and union procedures.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

International Review no.141 - 2nd quarter 2010

Contents of IR 141

Capitalism’s bankruptcy is more and more obvious - The only future is the class struggle!

Never has the bankruptcy of the capitalist system been more obvious. And never before have such massive attacks on the working class been planned. What developments in the class struggle can we expect?

The crisis is so serious that the bourgeoisie can no longer hide it

The subprime crisis of 2008 led to an open world crisis, resulting in a fall in economic activity without precedent since 1929:

-         within a few months, a whole number of financial institutions fell like dominoes;

-         there was a proliferation of factory closures with hundreds of thousands of workers being laid off worldwide. 

The measures the bourgeoisie has used to prevent the collapse being even deeper and more brutal have been no different from the successive policies applied since the beginning of the 1970s, based on credit. That's the way a new step in world debt has been taken. But today the growth in world debt is such that the present phase in the economic crisis is often called the "debt crisis".

The bourgeoisie has prevented the worst, for the moment. That said, not only has there not been a recovery, but a number of countries present the risk of serious insolvency, with debt above 100% of GDP. Not only Greece but also Portugal, Spain (5th largest economy in the EU), Ireland and Italy. While Britain has not reached this level of debt, it shows signs that specialists regard as very worrying.

Faced with the gravity of the crisis of overproduction, the bourgeoisie has only one resort: the state. But this, in turn, reveals its fragility. The bourgeoisie can only delay their repayment dates while all the economic players have no option but this headlong flight which is becoming more and more difficult and risky: always going further into debt. In this way the historic bases of the crisis tend to become more obvious. The bourgeoisie can no longer camouflage the reality of the crisis, as in the past, making it clearer and clearer that there is no possible solution within its system.

In such a context, the insolvency of a country[1] incapable of paying the interest on its debt from now on can provoke a chain reaction leading to the insolvency of many economic players (banks, enterprises, other countries). Certainly the bourgeoisie still tries to confuse the issue by focusing attention on speculation and speculators. Speculation is real, but it permeates the whole system and not only some "profiteers" or "criminal bosses". Mad finance, meaning unlimited debt and speculation on everything goes with, and is encouraged by, capitalism as a whole, as a means to delay the demands of the recession. This is capitalism's way of life today. The problem also resides in capitalism itself, incapable of surviving without new and ever more massive injections of credit.

What remedies are the bourgeoisie concocting to face the present crisis of debt? The bourgeoisie is in the process of trying to push through a terrible austerity plan in Greece. Another is being prepared in Spain. In France, new attacks on pensions and retirement are being planned.

Can the austerity plans contribute to loosening the grip of the crisis?

Are the austerity plans a way to a new recovery? Will they permit a rise, however small, in the proletarian standard of living that has suffered such hard attacks in the last two years of the crisis?

Certainly not! The world bourgeoisie cannot allow a country like Greece to "run down" (despite all Angela Merkel's thundering), without running the risk of similar consequences for some of its creditors. But the only aid it can give is new credit at "acceptable" rates (however the loans at 6% imposed on Greece by the EU recently are already particularly high). In return guarantees of budgetary rigour have been demanded. The recipient must provide evidence that it will not be a bottomless pit for "international aid". So Greece faces the demand to "reduce its way of life" to slow the growth of its deficit and debt. On condition of harsh attacks on the living conditions of the working class, the world capitalist market will have new confidence in Greece, which will be able to attract foreign loans and investments.

It is no paradox that the confidence accorded to Greece will depend on its capacity to reduce the rate of growth of its debt, and not its ability to stop the growth itself, which would be impossible. This means that for the world's capital markets the solvency of a country hangs by an increase in its debt that is "not too large". In other words, a country that has been declared insolvent because of its debt can become solvent again even if its debt continues to rise. Besides, Greece has every interest in holding out the threat of its "insolvency" to try and lower the interest rates charged by its creditors who, if they are not paid at all, will register a complete loss on their mounting credits and find themselves rapidly "in the red". In today's over-indebted world, solvency is not based on objective reality but on confidence... which is not based on reality.

The capitalists are forced to adhere to this faith; or else they must cease to believe in the durability of their system of exploitation. But if the capitalists have to believe it, this is not the case for the workers! The austerity plans as a whole allow the bourgeoisie to reassure themselves, but do not resolve the contradictions of capitalism at all and cannot even curb the growth of debt.

The austerity plans demand a drastic reduction in the cost of the workforce, which will be applied in all countries since all, to varying degrees, are confronted with enormous problems of debt and deficit. Such a policy, for which there is no real alternative in the framework of capitalism, can prevent a panic, even precipitate a mini-recovery built on sand, but certainly not cure the financial system. Still less can it resolve the contradictions of capitalism which are pushing it ever further into debt on pain of being shaken by more and more brutal depressions. But it must also make the working class accept the austerity plans. For the bourgeoisie these are the highest stakes and it also has its eyes fixed on the proletarian response to these attacks.

In what spirit is the working class approaching this new wave of attacks?

From the beginning of the 2000s the bourgeoisie's calls to "tighten your belts now so that things will be better tomorrow" were no longer succeeding in creating illusions in the working class, even if there were differences between one country and another at this level. The recent aggravation of the crisis has not, up to now, given rise to a broadening of the mobilisations of the working class over the last two or three years. The tendency was even the reverse in 2009. The characteristics of some of the attacks, particularly massive redundancies, have made the working class response to these more difficult because:

-         the bosses and governments have hidden behind the peremptory argument: "It is nothing to do with us if unemployment rises and you are laid off: it's because of the crisis";

-         with the closure of an enterprise or factory, workers lose the strike weapon, which accentuates their feeling of impotence and their disarray.

However, even if these difficulties weigh still more heavily on the working class, the situation is not blocked. This is illustrated by a change in spirit in the working class and expressed by small movements in the class struggle.

Workers' exasperation and anger is fed by a profound indignation in the face of a more and more scandalous and intolerable situation: the very survival of capitalism has, among other things, exposed the reality of two "different worlds" within the same society more plainly than ever. In the first world we find the immense majority of the population who experience all the injustices and poverty and must pay for the second, the world of the ruling class, with an indecent and arrogant display of power and wealth.

More directly linked to the present crisis, the widespread idea that "the banks have left us broke and we can't get out of it" (when we see states themselves close to cessation of payments) is less and less able to mislead and divert the anger against the system. Here we see the limits to the bourgeoisie's speeches which make the banks responsible for the present crisis in order to try and spare its system as a whole. Mud from the "banking scandal" is sticking to the whole of capitalism.

Even if the working class internationally remains stunned and helpless in the face of the avalanche of blows from governments of left and right, it is not resigned to it; it has not failed to react over the last few months. In fact the fundamental characteristics of the majority of workers' mobilisations since 2003 have appeared more explicitly. In particular, workers' solidarity is tending to impose itself anew as a fundamental need of the struggle, after having been denatured and depreciated in the 1990s. At present it is expressed in the form of initiatives which are certainly very minoritarian, but hold promise for the future.

The struggle of the workers of Tekel in Turkey last December and January was a beacon for the class struggle. It united Turkish and Kurdish workers in the same struggle (when a nationalist conflict has divided these populations for years), just as it showed a ferocious will to extend the struggle to other sectors and to oppose union sabotage.

At the very heart of capitalism, while the union framework is more powerful and sophisticated than in the peripheral countries, which allows it to prevent the explosion of massive struggles, we are seeing a renewal of working class combativity. These characteristics were verified in Vigo in Spain in early February. There the unemployed went to employed workers in the naval dockyards and demonstrated together, rallying other workers in order to stop work in the whole naval sector. What was most remarkable in this action was that the initiative was taken by workers laid off from the naval dockyards, having been replaced by immigrant workers "who sleep in the parks and eat just a sandwich a day". Far from eliciting xenophobic reactions from the workers with whom they have been put into competition by the bourgeoisie, these workers expressed their solidarity against the inhuman conditions of exploitation reserved for immigrant workers. These manifestations of workers' solidarity had already also seen in Britain among the construction workers at the Lindsey oil refinery in January and June 2009 as well as in the naval dockyards in Sestao in Spain in April 2009.[2]

In these struggles the working class has, even if still in a limited and embryonic way, shown not only its militancy but also its capacity to counter the ruling class' ideological campaigns to divide it, expressing proletarian solidarity, uniting workers from different corporations, sectors, ethnicities or nationalities in the same struggle. Similarly, the revolt of young proletarians, organised in general assemblies and with the support of the population, in Greece in December 2008, struck terror into the ruling class, fearing the "contagion" of the Greek example for other European countries, especially among the young generation of students. Today it is no accident that the bourgeoisie has again turned its eyes to the proletarian reactions in Greece to the austerity plan imposed by the government and other European Union states. These reactions are a valuable test case for other states threatened by the bankruptcy of their own national economies. Besides, the almost simultaneous announcement of similar plans has also precipitated demonstrations of tens of thousands of proletarians in the streets of Spain and Portugal. So, despite the difficulties that still weigh on the class struggle, a change of spirit is nevertheless at work within the working class. Everywhere in the world workers' exasperation and anger are deepening and generalising.

Reactions to austerity plans and attacks

In Greece...

In Greece on 3rd March the government announced a new austerity plan, the third in three months, including a rise in consumer taxes, a 30% reduction in the 13th month of salary and a 60% reduction in the 14th, premiums affecting civil servants (a fall of between 12% and 30% of their salaries) as well as freezing public sector pensions and private sector pay. But this plan has been very badly received by the population, especially by workers and pensioners.

In November/December 2008 the country was shaken for over a month by a social explosion, mainly led by proletarian youth, following the assassination of a youth by the police. This year the austerity measures announced by the Socialist government are threatening to unleash an explosion not only among students and the unemployed but also among the main battalions of the working class.

A general strike movement on the 24th February 2010 against the austerity plan was widely followed and a demonstration of civil servants mobilised about 40,000. A large number of civil servants and pensioners also demonstrated in the centre of Athens on 3rd March.

The events which followed have shown still more clearly that the proletariat is mobilised: "Just hours after the announcement of the new measures, laid-off workers of Olympic Airways attacked riot police lines guarding the State General Accountancy and have occupied the building, in what they call a open-ended occupation. The action has led to the closing of Athens' main commercial street, Panepistimiou, for long hours."[3]

In the days before the general strike of 11th March a series of strikes and occupations took place: the workers laid off from Olympic Airways occupied the offices of the General State Accountancy, while employees of the electricity company occupied the employment agencies in the name of the "right of the future unemployed, which we are", according to them. The workers at the state publishing company occupied their place of work and refused to print the legal documents for the economic measures, pointing out that until the law is printed it is not valid... Inland revenue officials stopped work for 48 hours; driving school employees in the North of the country struck for 3 days; even the judges and other court officials stopped all activity for 4 hours a day. No rubbish bins were emptied for several days in Athens, Patras and Salonica, the dustmen having blocked the large rubbish dumps in these cities. In the town of Komitini workers at ENKLO textiles held protest marches and strikes: they occupied two banks.

But if wider sections of the working class in Greece have been mobilised than during the struggles in November-December 2008, the bourgeoisie's apparatus to contain those struggles has been better prepared and more effective in order to sabotage the workers' response.

In fact the bourgeoisie has taken centre stage to turn workers' anger and militancy towards political and ideological dead ends. These have emptied out all the potential for proletarian solidarity and for taking control of the struggle that had started to take shape in the struggle of young workers in 2008.

Patriotism and nationalism are widely used to divide the workers and isolate them from their class brothers in other countries: in Greece they used the fact that the German bourgeoisie was refusing to aid the Greek economy, and the PASOK[4] government didn't hesitate to exploit anti-German feelings that persist from the time of the Nazi occupation.

Control by the parties and unions has allowed them to divide workers one from another. So the Olympic Airways employees have not allowed anyone outside the company into the public building they were occupying and the union leaders made them leave it without consulting a mass meeting. When other workers wanted to go to the public Treasury, occupied by workers from the state publishers, they were curtly sent away on the pretext "that they do not belong to the ministry"!

The profound anger of workers in Greece is directed against PASOK and the union leaders who are allied to it. On 5th March the leader of the GSEE, the central private sector union, was abused and hit when he tried to speak in front of the crowd and had to be protected by riot police and hide in the Parliament building, with the crowd hooting ironically that he had found his proper place: in the nest of thieves, assassins and liars.

But the Greek Communist Party (KKE) and its official union, the PAME, pass themselves off as "radical" alternatives to the PASOK while they are conducting a campaign to blame the crisis on the bankers and on "the misdeeds of liberalism".

In November/December 2008 the movement was largely spontaneous and held open assemblies in the occupied schools and universities. The headquarters of the Communist Party (KKE), like the headquarters of the PAME union confederation, were occupied, a sign of the clear distrust of the union and Stalinist apparatus, which had denounced the young demonstrators as lumpenproletarians and spoiled children of the bourgeoisie.

But this time the Greek Communist Party is ostensibly at the head of the most radical strikes, demonstrations and occupations: "On Thursday morning, workers under the Communist Party union umbrella PAME occupied the Ministry of Finance on Syntagma square (...) as well as the county headquarters of the city of Trikala. Later, PAME also occupied 4 TV station in the city in Patras, and the state TV station of Salonica, forcing the news broadcasters to play a DVD against government measures".[5] Many strikes have also been called on the initiative of the Communist Party. On 3rd March it called a "general strike" and a demonstration starting from 4th and from 5th in different cities. PAME has stepped up its spectacular actions, sometimes occupying the Finance ministry, sometimes the locality of the stock exchange.

On 11 March, Greece was 90% paralysed over the whole country for 24 hours by the movement expressing the population's anger following a second call for a general strike in less than a month by the two main unions. More than 3 million people (from a total population of 11 million) took part. The 11 March demonstration in Athens was the largest in 15 years and showed the working class's determination to respond to the capitalist offensive.

...and elsewhere

In all regions in the world, in Algeria, Russia, among immigrant manual workers in the Emirates, super-exploited and deprived of all social protection, among British workers and among students reduced to a precarious existence in the former richest American state, California, the current situation shows an underlying tendency towards the recovery of the class struggle internationally.

The bourgeoisie is confronted with a situation in which, in addition to redundancies from enterprises in difficulties, states must carry out frontal attacks on the working class to make it pay for the debt. The direct responsibility of the state for the attacks in this instance is much more easily identifiable than in the case of redundancies in sectors where the state can present itself as the "protector" of employees, even if not a very effective one. The fact that the state can be clearly seen for what it is, the main defender of the interests of the capitalist class as a whole against the working class as a whole, is a factor which encourages the development of the class struggle, its unity and its politicisation.

In the current situation all the elements for the explosion of massive struggles are developing. But what will set these off is certainly the build up of exasperation, discontent and indignation. The bourgeoisie's application of the different austerity plans in different countries will provide the working class with so many occasions to gain experience of struggle and draw lessons.

Massive struggles, an important step in the development of the class struggle... but not the last

The collapse of Stalinism, and above all the bourgeoisie's ideological exploitation of it, based on the greatest lie of the century which identifies the Stalinist regimes with socialism, has left traces which are still at work in the working class today.

Faced with the bourgeoisie's "evidence" that "communism doesn't work; the proof is that it has been abandoned in favour of capitalism by the populations affected", workers can only turn away from any alternative society to capitalism.

The resulting situation is very different to the end of the 1960s from that point of view. At that time the massive scale of workers' combats, especially the May 1968 strike in France and the Italian "hot autumn" in 1969, showed that the working class could be a significant force in the life of society. The idea that it could one day overturn capitalism did not appear to be an unrealistic dream, as it does today.

The difficulty of embarking on massive struggles shown by the proletariat since the 1990s resulted in a loss of self-confidence, which has not been overcome by the renewal of class struggle since 2003.

Only the development of massive struggles will enable the proletariat to recover confidence in its own strength and put forward its own perspective again. So this is a fundamental step in which revolutionaries must encourage the working class's capacity to understand what is at stake - the historic dimension of its struggles, to recognise its enemies and to take its struggles into its own hands.

However important this future stage in the class struggle, it will not mean an end to the proletariat's hesitations in about setting out on the road to revolution.

Already in 1852 Marx brought out the difficult and tortuous course of proletarian revolution as opposed to bourgeois revolutions which "like those of the 18th century, storm swiftly from success to success".[6]

This difference between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat as revolutionary classes results from the differences between the conditions of the bourgeois revolution and the proletarian revolution.

Taking political power for the capitalist class was the end point of a whole process of economic transformation within feudal society. During this process the old feudal relations of production were progressively supplanted by capitalist relations of production. The bourgeoisie depended on the new economic relations to take political power.

The process of proletarian revolution is completely different. Communist relations of production, which are not market relations, cannot develop within capitalist society. Because it is the exploited class in capitalism, deprived by definition of property in the means of production, the working class does not have and cannot have any economic power in the conquest of political power. It relies on its consciousness and organisation in the struggle. In contrast to the revolutionary bourgeoisie, the first act of communist transformation of social relations must be conscious and deliberate: taking political power at the world level by the proletariat as a whole organised in workers' councils.

The enormity of this task is evidently one to make the working class hesitate, and doubt its own strength. But it is the only road for the survival of humanity: the abolition of capitalism, of exploitation, and the creation of a new society.

FW, March 31st 2010.

[1]. It is evident that the bankruptcy of a state does not at all have the same characteristics as that of an enterprise: if it becomes incapable of repaying its debts there is no question of a state "shutting up shop", laying off all its civil servants and dissolving its structures (police, army, education or administrative bodies) even if, in some countries (notably in Russia or certain African countries), the state employees can go unpaid for months due to the crisis.

[2]. See the following articles on our website, on the strikes in Britain "Construction workers at the centre of class struggle"; on "Turkey: Solidarity with Tekel workers' resistance against government and unions!"; on Spain "Vigo: joint struggle of the unemployed and shipyard workers".

[3]. Blog on

[4]. PASOK - Panhellenic Socialist Movement

[5]. From

[6]. In The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.


Recent and ongoing: 

Decadence of capitalism (vi): The theory of capitalist decline and the struggle against revisionism


Engels discerns the approach of capitalism's historic crisis

According to a certain school of academic Marxologists, councilists and anarchists, marxist theory entered a period of sterility after Marx's death in 1883.  The social democratic parties and the Second International, in this view, were actually dominated by "Engelsism", an attempt by Marx's second fiddle and his camp-followers to turn Marx's method of investigation into a semi-mechanical system which falsely equates radical social criticism with the approach of the natural sciences. "Engelsism" is also attacked for being a regression to quasi-mystical Hegelian dogmas, particularly in its efforts to elaborate a "dialectics of nature". In this view, what is natural is not social, and what is social is not natural. If the dialectic exists, it can only be applied to the social sphere.

This break in continuity between Marx and Engels - which in its extreme form dismisses almost the whole of the Second International as a vehicle for integrating the proletarian movement into the needs of capital - is frequently used to reject any idea of continuity in the political history of the working class. From Marx, whose work few of our anti-Engelsists repudiate (indeed they frequently become experts on the minutiae of the value/price transformation problem or other partial aspects of Marx's critique of political economy), we are encouraged to leap over Engels, Kautsky, Lenin, and the Second and Third Internationals; and although parts of the communist left may, despite being the scions of this dubious parenthood, be grudgingly acknowledged to have hit upon a few insights, the real continuity of Marx's theory passes from Marx to....the scattering of brilliant individuals who have really understood him in the last few decades - none other, in fact, than the proponents of the "anti-Engelsist" thesis.

We can't respond to this whole ideology here. Like all myths, it is based on a certain element of truth which is then distorted and exaggerated beyond measure. During the period of the Second International, a period when the workers' movement was establishing itself as an organised force within capitalist society, there was a real tendency to schematise marxism and to turn it into a form of determinism, just as there was a real pressure on the workers' movement from the weight of reformist ideas; and even the best marxists, including Engels himself, were not immune from this.[1] But even if Engels did make some important errors during this period, to flatly dismiss Engels' work in the years after Marx's death as a negation and a perversion of Marx's real thought is an absurdity given the extremely close cooperation between the two men from the beginning to the end of their relationship. It was Engels who took on the immense task of editing and publishing Marx's Capital and it is ironic that so many of those who try to drive a wedge between Marx and Engels are perfectly happy to quote the Marx of volumes two and three of Capital, despite the fact that they only appeared in public via the allegedly uncomprehending mind of Engels.

One of the principal exponents of this "anti-Engelsist" line of thought is the Aufheben group in the UK, whose series "Decadence: Theory of decline or the decline of theory"[2] has been taken by some to have driven the last nail into the coffin of the notion of capitalist decadence, given the number of times the series is cited by those who are hostile to this notion. In their view, the decadence of capitalism is essentially an invention of the Second International: "The theory of capitalist decadence first comes to prominence in the Second International. The Erfurt Programme supported by Engels established the theory of the decline and breakdown of capitalism as central to the party's programme."[3] And they cite the following passages: 

"Private property in the means of production has changed... From a motive power of progress it has become a cause of social degradation and bankruptcy. Its downfall is certain. The only question to be answered is: shall the system of private ownership in the means of production be allowed to pull society with itself down into the abyss; or shall society shake off that burden and then, free and strong, resume the path of progress which the evolutionary path prescribes to it? [p. 87] The productive forces that have been generated in capitalist society have become irreconcilable with the very system of property on which it is built. The endeavour to uphold this system of property renders impossible all further social development, condemns society to stagnation and decay. [p. 88] The capitalist social system has run its course; its dissolution is now only a question of time. Irresistible economic forces lead with the certainty of doom to the shipwreck of capitalist production. The erection of a new social order for the existing one is no longer something merely desirable; it has become something inevitable. [p. 117] As things stand today capitalist civilisation cannot continue; we must either move forward into socialism or fall back into barbarism".

In the summary that begins the next article in the series (Aufheben n° 3), the argument that the concept of decadence was rooted in "Second International Marxism" is even more explicit:

"In Part I we looked at how this idea of the decline or decadence of capitalism has its roots in Second International Marxism and was maintained by the two claimants to the mantle of true continuers of the 'classical Marxist tradition' - Trotskyist Leninism and Left or Council communism".

Although the quotes Aufheben describes as being from the Erfurt Programme appear to come from Kautsky's comments on the programme (The Class Struggle, 1892) rather than the document itself, the preamble to the actual programme certainly contains a reference to the notion of capitalist decline and indeed asserts that this period has already opened up: "The gulf between the propertied and the propertyless is further widened by crises that are grounded in the nature of the capitalist mode of production, crises that are becoming more extensive and more devastating, that elevate this general uncertainty into the normal state of society and furnish proof that the powers of productivity have grown beyond society's control, that the private ownership of the means of production has become incompatible with their appropriate application and full development".  As a matter of fact, however, despite Aufheben's view that the Erfurt programme is so dependent on the theory of decadence, a cursory reading of the programme gives the impression that there is hardly any connection at all between the overall diagnosis cited above and the demands put forward in the programme, which are all essentially a series of minimum demands to be fought for inside capitalist society; and even Engels' many detailed points of criticism of these demands makes almost no reference to the historical context in which these demands are being raised.[4]  

That said, it is certainly true that in the work of Engels and other marxists in the last part of the 19th century we find increasing references to the notion of capitalism entering upon a crisis of old age, a period of decline.

But while for Aufheben this was a departure from Marx - who, they maintain merely maintained that capitalism was a "transitory" system and did not put forward any idea of an objective process of decline or breakdown as a foundation for the revolutionary struggle against the system - we have tried to show in previous articles in this series that the conception of capitalist decadence (as of the decadence of previous class societies) was entirely in line with Marx's own thinking.

Again, it's certainly the case that Marx's writings on political economy were produced during the period when capitalism was still in its triumphant ascendancy. Its periodic crises were crises of youth which served to impel the imperious march of this dynamic mode of production across the surface of the globe. But Marx had also been able to see these convulsions as harbingers of the system's eventual demise, and had already begun to see signs of capital completing its historic mission by opening up the more remote areas of the planet, while in "old Europe", in the wake of the events of the Paris Commune, he affirmed that the phase of heroic national wars had come to an end. 

Furthermore, during the period after Marx's death, the approaching signs of a crisis of historical proportions, and not just a repetition of the old cyclical crises, were becoming increasingly clear. 

Thus, for example, Engels pondered the significance of the apparent end of the "ten year cycle" of crises and the onset of what he termed a chronic depression affecting the original capitalist nation, Great Britain. And while new powerful capitalist nations were thrusting their way onto the world market, above all Germany and the USA, Engels saw that this would inevitably result in a much more profound crisis of overproduction:

"America will smash up England's industrial monopoly - whatever there is left of it - but America cannot herself succeed to that monopoly. And unless one country has the monopoly of the markets of the world, at least in the decisive branches of trade, the conditions - relatively favourable - which existed here in England from 1848 to 1870 cannot anywhere be reproduced, and even in America the condition of the working class must gradually sink lower and lower. For if there are three countries (say England, America and Germany) competing on comparatively equal terms for the possession of the Weltmarkt, there is no chance but chronic overproduction, one of the three being capable of supplying the whole quantity required".[5] 

Simultaneously, Engels saw capitalism's tendency to engineer its own ruin in the accelerating conquest of the non-capitalist hinterland that surrounded the capitalist metropoles: 

"For it is one of the necessary corollaries of grande industrie that it destroys its own home market by the very process by which it creates it. It creates it by destroying the basis of the domestic industry of the peasantry. But without domestic industry the peasantry cannot live. They are ruined as peasants; their purchasing power is reduced to a minimum; and until they, as proletarians, have settled down into new conditions of existence, they will furnish a very poor market for the newly-arisen factories.

"Capitalist production being a transitory economical phase, is full of internal contradictions which develop and become evident in proportion as it develops. This tendency to destroy its own market at the same time it creates it, is one of them. Another one is the insoluble situation to which it leads, and which is developed sooner in a country without a foreign market, like Russia, than in countries which are more or less capable of competing on the open world market. This situation without an apparent issue finds its issue, for the latter countries, in commercial revulsions, in the forcible opening of new markets. But even then the cul-de-sac stares one in the face. Look at England. The last new market which could bring on a temporary revival of prosperity by its being thrown open to English commerce is China. Therefore English capital insists upon constructing Chinese railways. But Chinese railways mean the destruction of the whole basis of Chinese small agriculture and domestic industry, and as there will not even be the counterpoise of a Chinese grande industrie, hundreds of millions of people will be placed in the impossibility of living. The consequence will be a wholesale emigration such as the world has not yet seen, a flooding of America, Asia and Europe by the hated Chinaman, a competition for work with the American, Australian and European workman on the basis of the Chinese standard of life, the lowest of all--and if the system of production has not been changed in Europe before that time, it will have to be changed then.

"Capitalistic production works its own ruin, and you may be sure it will do so in Russia too...."[6]

The growth of militarism and imperialism, aimed above all at completing the conquest of the non-capitalist areas of the planet, also enabled him to see with remarkable lucidity the danger of these developments rebounding back to the centre of the system - to Europe, threatening to engulf civilisation in barbarism while at the same time accelerating the maturation of the revolution.

"No war is any longer possible for Prussia-Germany except a world war and a world war indeed of an extent and violence hitherto undreamt-of. Eight to ten millions of soldiers will massacre one another and in doing so devour the whole of Europe until they have stripped it barer than any storm of locusts has ever done. The devastation of the Thirty Years War compressed into three or four years, and spread over the whole Continent: famine, pestilence, general descent into barbarism, both of the armies and the mass of the people; hopeless confusion of our artificial system of trade, industry and credit, ending in general bankruptcy, collapse of the old states and their traditional elite wisdom to such an extent that crowns will roll by dozens on the pavement and there will be nobody to pick them up; absolute impossibility of foreseeing how it will all end and who will come out of the struggle as victor; only one result is absolutely certain: general exhaustion and the establishment of the conditions for the final victory of the working class".[7]

As it happens, however, Engels did not see such a war as inevitably bringing forth socialism: he had a well-founded fear that the general exhaustion would affect the proletariat as well and render it incapable of accomplishing its revolution (hence, we could add, a certain attraction for somewhat utopian schemes that might delay or put off the onset of war, such as the replacement of standing armies with a popular militia). However, Engels had grounds to hope that the revolution would break out prior to a pan-European war. A letter to Bebel (24-26 October, 1891) encapsulates this "optimistic" view:

"...According to the reports, you said that I had prophesied the collapse of bourgeois society in 1898. There is a slight error there somewhere. All I said was that we might possibly come to power by 1898. If this does not happen, the old bourgeois society might still vegetate on for a while, so long as a shove from outside does not bring the whole ramshackle old building crashing down. A rotten old casing like this can survive its inner essential death for a few decades, if the atmosphere is undisturbed"

In this passage you have both the illusions of the movement of the time and its underlying theoretical strength. The steady gains of the social democratic party, above all on the electoral front and in Germany, gave rise to exaggerated hopes that there could be a kind of inexorable progress towards the revolution (and even the revolution itself could be seen in semi-parliamentary terms, despite oft-repeated warnings against the parliamentary cretinism that was a central aspect of the rapidly burgeoning ideology of reformism). At the same time, the consequences of the failure of the proletariat to take power are laid out clearly: capitalism surviving for several decades as a "rotten old casing" - although Engels, like most revolutionaries of his day, would probably not have thought that it could survive its crisis of decline for a century or more. But the theoretical underpinning for anticipating such a state of affairs is clearly laid out in this passage.   

Luxemburg leads the battle against revisionism

And yet, precisely because the great imperialist expansion of the last decades of the 19th century made it possible for capitalism to experience dramatic rates of growth, this phase is remembered above all as one of unprecedented prosperity and progress, of steadily improving living standards for the working class, thanks not only to the favourable objective conditions but also to the growing influence of the workers' movement organised in trade unions and social democratic parties. This was especially the case in Germany, and it was here that the workers' movement was faced with a major challenge: the rise of revisionism.

Spearheaded by the writings of Eduard Bernstein at the end of the 1890s, the revisionists argued that social democracy should recognise that the evolution of capitalism had invalidated some fundamental elements in Marx's analysis - above all the prediction of ever-growing crises and consequent impoverishment of the proletariat. Capitalism had shown that by using the mechanism of credit and organising in huge trusts and cartels it could overcome its tendency towards anarchy and crisis and, under the impulsion of a well-organised workers' movement, could make growing concessions to the working class. The "ultimate" goal of revolution enshrined in the programme of the social democratic party had therefore become redundant; and the party should acknowledge itself for what it really was: a "democratic-socialist party of reform", advancing gradually and peacefully towards a transformation of capitalism into socialism.

A number of figures on the left wing of the social democracy responded to these arguments. In Russia Lenin polemicised against the Economists who wanted to reduce the workers' movement to the fight for "bread and butter" issues; in Holland Gorter and Pannekoek led the polemic against the mounting influence of reformism in the trade union and parliamentary arenas. In the USA Louis Boudin wrote an important book, The Theoretical System of Karl Marx (1907), in answer to the revisionist arguments - we shall return to this later on. But it was above all Rosa Luxemburg in Germany who is associated with the struggle against revisionism, at the core of which was the reaffirmation of the marxist notion of the decline and catastrophic collapse of capitalism.

Reading Luxemburg's polemic with Bernstein, Social Reform or Revolution (1900), it is striking how much the arguments that the latter put forward have been repeated over and over again, almost every time that capitalism gave the appearance - however superficial - of overcoming its crises.  

"According to Bernstein, a general decline of capitalism seems to be increasingly improbable because, on the one hand, capitalism shows a greater capacity of adaptation, and, on the other hand, capitalist production becomes more and more varied.

"The capacity of capitalism to adapt itself, says Bernstein, is manifested first in the disappearance of general crises, resulting from the development of the credit system, employers' organisations, wider means of communication and informational services. It shows itself secondly, in the tenacity of the middle classes, which hails from the growing differentiation of the branches of production and the elevation of vast layers of the proletariat to the level of the middle class. It is furthermore proved, argues Bernstein, by the amelioration of the economic and political situation of the proletariat as a result of its trade union activity."[8]

How often have we been told, not only by the official ideologists of the bourgeoisie, but also by those who claim to have a far more radical ideology in their pockets, that crises are a thing of the past because capitalism today is organised on a national or even international scale, because it can have infinite recourse to credit and other financial manipulations; how many times have we been told that the working class has ceased to be a revolutionary force because it is no longer facing the absolute misery described in Engels' book about the conditions of the working class in Manchester in 1844, or because it is becoming more and more indistinguishable from the middle classes? Certainly these were the grand sociological refrains of the 1950s and 60s, given a radical gloss by the likes of Marcuse and Castoridadis; and they were dragged out of the cupboard again in the 1990s after the collapse of the eastern bloc and with the credit-fuelled boom that has only recently been exposed as a hollow sham.

Against these arguments, Luxemburg insisted that far from overcoming crises, the "organisation" of capital through cartels and credit was a response to the contradictions of the system and tended to raise these contradictions to a higher and more devastating level.

Credit was seen by Luxemburg essentially as a means for facilitating the extension of the market while concentrating capital in fewer and fewer hands. At this point in history, this was certainly the case - there was a real possibility for capitalism to expand outwards and credit greatly accelerated this expansion. But at the same time Luxemburg was able to grasp the destructive side of credit as this expansion of the market was also the premise for future conflict with the mass of productive forces set in motion:

"We see that credit, instead of being an instrument for the suppression or the attenuation of crises, is on the contrary a particularly mighty instrument for the formation of crises. It cannot be anything else. Credit eliminates the remaining rigidity of capitalist relationships. It introduces everywhere the greatest elasticity possible. It renders all capitalist forces extensible, relative and mutually sensitive to the highest degree. Doing this, it facilitates and aggravates crises, which are nothing more or less than the periodic collisions of the contradictory forces of capitalist economy."[9]

Credit was not yet what it has largely become today - not so much a means of accelerating the expansion of a real market, but an artificial market in itself, upon which capitalism has become increasingly dependent. But its function as a medicine that aggravates the disease has thereby become even more evident in this epoch, and above all since the outbreak of the so-called "credit crunch" of 2008.

By the same token, the tendency of capitalism and the capitalists to organise themselves on a national and even international scale was seen by Luxemburg not as a solution to the antagonisms of the system but as a potent force for raising them onto a higher and more destructive level:

"capitalist combinations aggravate the contradiction existing between the international character of capitalist world economy and the national character of the State - insofar as they are always accompanied by a general tariff war, which sharpens the differences among the capitalist States. We must add to this the decidedly revolutionary influence exercised by cartels on the concentration of production, technical progress, etc.

"In other words, when evaluated from the angle of their final effect on capitalist economy, cartels and trusts fail as ‘means of adaptation'. They fail to attenuate the contradictions of capitalism. On the contrary, they appear to be an instrument of greater anarchy. They encourage the further development of the internal contradictions of capitalism. They accelerate the coming of a general decline of capitalism".[10]

These predictions - above all as the organisation of capital passed from the stage of cartels to the national "state capitalist trusts" which confronted each other for control of the world market in 1914 - were to be profoundly vindicated by the entire history of the 20th century.

Luxemburg also responded to Bernstein's arguments that the proletariat did not need to make a revolution because it was enjoying growing living standards as a result of its effective organisation in trade unions and through the activities of its representatives in parliament. She warned that trade union activity had inherent limitations, describing it as a "labour of Sisyphus", necessary, but constantly frustrated in its efforts to increase the worker's share in the products of his labour because of the inevitable increase in the rate of exploitation brought about by the development of productivity. Later developments in capitalism would expose even more thoroughly the historical limits of trade unionism, but even while activity in the trade unions (as well as the parallel fields of action in parliament and cooperatives) still retained a validity for the working class, the revisionists were already falsifying reality by arguing that such activities could secure for the working class a constant and indefinite improvement in its living conditions.

And while Bernstein saw a tendency towards the attenuation of class relations through the proliferation of small-scale enterprises and thus the growth of the middle class, Luxemburg affirmed the existence of the tendency that was certainly to become predominant in the century that followed: the evolution of capitalism towards increasingly gigantic forms of concentration and centralisation, both at the level of the "private" enterprise and the state and imperialist alliance.   Others on the revolutionary left, such as Boudin, responded to the claim that the proletariat itself was becoming middle class by arguing that many of the "white collar" and technical strata which were supposedly swallowing up the working class were in reality themselves a product of the process of proletarianisation - again, a tendency that has become increasingly marked in the last few decades. Boudin's words from 1907 thus have a very modern ring to them, as do the specious arguments they are directed against:

"A very great proportion of what is termed new middle class, and appears as such in the income statistics, is really a part of the regular proletariat, and the new middle class, whatever it may be, is a good deal smaller than might be supposed from the tables of incomes. This confusion is due, on the one hand, to the old and firmly-rooted prejudice, according to which Marx is supposed to ascribe value creating properties only to manual labour, and on the other to the severance of the function of superintendence from the possession of property - effected by the corporations as noted before. Owing to these circumstances large sections of the proletariat are counted as belonging to the middle class, that is, the lower strata of the capitalist class. This is the case with almost all those numerous and growing occupations in which the remuneration is termed ‘salary' instead of ‘wages'. All these salaried persons, no matter what their salaries may be, who make up perhaps the bulk, and certainly a great portion, of the ‘new' middle class, are in reality just as much a part of the proletariat as the merest day-labourer."[11]

Heading towards the debacle of bourgeois civilisation

Today's open economic crisis is taking place in a very advanced stage of capitalism's decay. Luxemburg was responding to Bernstein in a period which she characterised, again with remarkable lucidity, as being not yet that of the period of decline, but as one in which the approach of this period was becoming increasingly evident.  This passage occurs in Luxemburg's response to Bernstein's empirical (and empiricist) question: why have we not seen any expressions of the old decennial cycle since the early 1870s? Luxemburg's answer is to insist that this cycle was in fact the product of a youthful phase of capitalism; the world market was at that point in a "transitional period" between its period of maximum growth and the onset of an epoch of decline:

"The world market is still developing. Germany and Austria only entered the phase of actual large industrial production in the 1870s; Russia only in the 1880s; France is still in large part in the stage of smallscale production; the Balkan states, for the most part, have still not stripped themselves of the chains of a natural economy; and only in the 1880s did America, Australia and Africa enter into a large and regular exchange of goods with Europe. Thus, on the one hand, we now have behind us the sudden and large opening up of new areas of the capitalist economy, as occurred periodically until the 1870s; and we have behind us, so to speak, previous youthful crises which followed these periodic developments. On the other hand, we still have not progressed to that degree of development and exhaustion of the world market which would produce the fatal, periodic collision of the forces of production with the limits of the market, which is the actual capitalist crisis of old age. We are in a phase in which the crises are no longer the accompaniment of the growth of capitalism, and not yet that of its decline."[12]

Interestingly, however, in the second edition of the pamphlet, published in 1908, Luxemburg omitted this passage and an ensuing paragraph and mentioned the crisis of 1907-8, centred precisely in the most powerful industrial nations: evidently, for Luxemburg, the "transitional period" was already drawing to a close.

Furthermore, she also hints that the previous expectation of the new period being opened by a "great commercial crisis" might prove to have been mistaken - already in Social Reform or Revolution she points to the growth of militarism, a development that was to preoccupy her more and more. It is surely the possibility that the opening of the new period might be marked by war rather than open economic crisis that lies behind the following observation:

"Socialist theory up to now declared that the point of departure for a transformation to socialism would be a general and catastrophic crisis. We must distinguish in this outlook two things: the fundamental idea and its exterior form.

"The fundamental idea consists of the affirmation that capitalism, as a result of its own inner contradictions, moves toward a point when it will be unbalanced, when it will simply become impossible. There were good reasons for conceiving that juncture in the form of a catastrophic general commercial crisis. But that is of secondary importance when the fundamental idea is considered".[13]

But whatever form the dawning of the "crisis of senility" might take, Luxemburg insisted that without this vision of the catastrophic downfall of capitalism, socialism becomes a mere utopia: 

"According to scientific socialism, the historic necessity of the socialist revolution manifests itself above all in the growing anarchy of capitalism, which drives the system into an impasse. But if one admits with Bernstein that capitalist development does not move in the direction of its own ruin, then socialism ceases to be objectively necessary...

"Revisionist theory thus places itself in a dilemma. Either the socialist transformation is, as was admitted up to now, the consequence of the internal contradictions of capitalism, and with the growth of capitalism will develop its inner contradictions, resulting inevitably, at some point, in its collapse, (in that case the ‘means of adaptation' are ineffective and the theory of collapse is correct); or the ‘means of adaptation' will really stop the collapse of the capitalist system and thereby enable capitalism to maintain itself by suppressing its own contradictions. In that case socialism ceases to be an historic necessity. It then becomes anything you want to call it, but it is no longer the result of the material development of society.

"The dilemma leads to another. Either revisionism is correct in its position on the course of capitalist development, and therefore the socialist transformation of society is only a utopia, or socialism is not a utopia, and the theory of ‘means of adaptation' is false. There is the question in a nutshell".[14]

In this passage Luxemburg draws out with stark clarity the intimate relationship between the revisionist outlook and the rejection of Marx's theory of capitalism's decline - and conversely, the necessity for such a theory as the foundation-stone of a coherent conception of revolution. 

In the next article in this series we will look at how Luxemburg and others sought to locate the origins of the approaching crisis in the underlying process of capitalist accumulation.

Gerrard, Winter 2009.



[1]. See for example the article "1895-1905: parliamentary illusions hide the perspective of revolution" (International Review n°88), the concluding chapter of our book Communism is not a nice idea but a material necessity.

[2]. Aufheben n°s 2 and 3:

[3]. Aufheben n° 2.


[5]. Engels to Florence Kelley Wischnewetzky. February 3 1886.

[6]. Letter to Nikolai Danielson, Sept 22 1892.

[7]. 15 December 1887, Marx and Engels Collected Works Vol. 26, p451.

[8]. Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution, Chapter 1, "The opportunist method".

[9]. Ibid. Chapter 2, "The adaptation of capitalism".

[10].  Ibid.

[11]. The Theoretical System of Karl Marx, 1907, p 207.

[12]. Luxemburg, Social Reform or Revolution, Chapter two.

[13]. Ibid, Chapter 1.

[14]. Ibid.

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Heritage of the Communist Left: 


ICC internal debate on economics (Part 5): Chronic overproduction - An unavoidable fetter on capitalist accumulation

World debt has reached astronomical proportions, no longer making it possible to go on "re-launching" the economy through a new spiral of debt without threatening the financial credibility of states and the value of their currencies. Faced with this situation, revolutionaries have a responsibility to make an in-depth analysis of the ways in which capitalism has up till now kept its system artificially alive by "cheating" its own laws. This is the only method that can result in a pertinent evaluation of the impasse which the world bourgeoisie now faces.

Studying the period known as the "Thirty Glorious Years", so lauded and so regretted by the bourgeoisie, is no exception to this and revolutionaries obviously need to refute the interpretations offered by the defenders of capitalism, in particular when they want to convince us that capitalism can be reformed.[1] while at the same time engaging in a fraternal confrontation with the different points of view that exist on this subject within the proletarian camp. This is the aim of the debate to which our organisation has opened the columns of the International Review for two years now.[2]

The view developed in our pamphlet The Decadence of Capitalism, according to which the destruction that took place during the Second World War, by creating a reconstruction market, were the source of the boom of the 1950s and 1960s, has been subjected to a critique in the ICC, particularly from the position of the thesis we defend, referred to as "extra-capitalist markets and debt". As its name indicates, this thesis considers that it was selling to extra-capitalist markets and selling on credit that was the motor for capitalist accumulation during the 1950s and 60s, and not Keynesian measures, as defended in the other thesis, referred to as the Keynesian-Fordist thesis.[3] In International Review n° 138 there was a contribution signed by Salome and Ferdinand, defending the latter point of view and which, by putting forward a number of arguments that have not yet been publicly discussed, has reanimated the debate. While responding to the arguments of these two comrades, this article has the following objectives: to recall the foundations of the thesis of extra-capitalist markets and debt; to present some statistical elements which, in our opinion, illustrate its validity and to examine its implications for the ICC's global framework of analysis of the period of capitalist decadence.[4] 

The main theoretical arguments

The analysis defended in The Decadence of Capitalism sees a certain economic rationality in war (war as having positive economic consequences). In this sense, it is in contradiction with older texts of our organisation which argue that "what characterises all these wars, like the two world wars, is that unlike those of the previous century, at no time have they permitted any progress in the development of the productive forces, having had no other result than massive destructions which have bled dry the countries in which they have taken place (not to mention the horrible massacres they have provoked)".[5]

In our opinion the mistake in our pamphlet is the result of a hasty and erroneous application of the following passage from the Communist Manifesto: "And how does the bourgeoisie get over these crises? On the one hand by enforced destruction of a mass of productive forces; on the other, by the conquest of new markets, and by the more thorough exploitation of the old ones". In fact, these lines do not attribute the destruction of the means of production with the virtue of opening a new solvent market capable of getting the economic machine back in motion. In conformity with all the economic writings of Marx, it's necessary to interpret the effects of the destruction of capital (or rather the devaluing of capital) as helping to disgorge the existing market and counter the tendency towards the falling rate of profit.[6]

The thesis referred to as Keynesian-Fordist state capitalism offers an interpretation of the years of "prosperity" in the 1950s and 1960 different both from the one put forward in The Decadence of Capitalism and the extra-capitalist markets and debt thesis. "The guaranteed growth in profits, state spending and the rise in real wages, were able to guarantee the final demand so vital if capital were to continue its accumulation."[7] Two arguments have been put forward in response to this idea:

Increasing wages above what is necessary for the reproduction of labour power constitutes, from the capitalist point of view, a pure and simple waste of surplus value which can in no way contribute to the process of accumulation. Furthermore, while it's true that increasing workers' consumption (through raising wages) and augmenting state spending create an outlet for a growth in production, the overall consequence of this is a sterilisation of wealth which cannot usefully serve the valorisation of capital.[8]

Among the sales made by capitalism, the part which can be devoted to the accumulation of capital, and which thus participates in its real enrichment, correspond to sales realised through trade with extra-capitalist markets (internal or external). This is effectively the only way of permitting capitalism to avoid finding itself in a situation where "capitalists are exchanging among themselves and consuming their own production", which, as Marx said "does not at all permit the valorisation of capital".[9]

In their article in International Review n° 138, comrades Salome and Ferdinand come back to this subject. Here they make a precision, a perfectly appropriate one in our view, regarding what they see as the framework of this debate: "One might reply that such an increase in the size of the market is not enough to realise the whole of the surplus value necessary for accumulation. This is true in general and in the long term. Those of us who defend the ‘Keynesian-Fordist' thesis do not think that we have discovered a solution to capitalism's inherent contradictions, which could be endlessly repeated".

They then illustrate via a schema (based on those used by Marx in the second volume of Capital to present the problem of enlarged reproduction) how accumulation can continue despite the fact that a part of the surplus value is deliberately returned to the workers in the form of wage increases. From their point of view, the same underlying logic explains why an extra-capitalist market is not indispensible to the development of capitalism: "if the conditions are such as those assumed in the schemas, and if we accept the consequences (conditions and consequences which can be analysed separately), then a government which controls the entire economy can theoretically organise it in such a way that accumulation functions according to the schema"

For the comrades, the balance sheet of this redistribution of surplus value, even if it slows accumulation down, is nevertheless positive, since it makes it possible to enlarge the internal market: "If this profit is high enough, then the capitalists can increase wages without losing all the increase in extracted surplus value...The only ‘damaging' effect of this ‘waste of surplus value' is that the increase in capital's organic composition is less frenetic than it would otherwise have been".

We agree with the observation the comrades make regarding the effects of the "waste of surplus value". But on this subject they also say: "we cannot assert that this ‘waste of surplus value' plays no part in the process of accumulation. On the contrary this distribution of profit obtained through the increase in productivity plays a complete part in accumulation". It is clear, as the comrades themselves recognise, that the waste in question does not participate in the process of accumulation through the injection of capital into the process of production. Indeed it diverts capital which could have been accumulated away from the capitalist goal of accumulation. There is no doubt a momentary usefulness in this for the bourgeoisie, since it allows it to artificially maintain, or even increase, a certain level of economic activity. It thus postpones the problem of the lack of sufficient markets for capitalist production. This is the function of Keynesian measures; but, once again, this does not participate in the process of accumulation. Rather it participates in the process of production in the conditions of the decadence of capitalism, when this system, more and more unable to function "normally", has to multiply unproductive expenses in order to keep economic activity going. This waste is added on to the already enormous amount of waste made up of military spending or the cost of keeping society under control. Motivated by the necessity to create an artificial internal market, it is an expense equally as irrational and unproductive as the last two.

While Keynesian measures did allow for a very important growth in GNP in the main industrial countries during the 50s and 60s, thus giving the illusion of a lasting return to the prosperity of the ascendant phase of capitalism, the wealth really created during this period grew at a rhythm that was necessarily much more modest since a significant part of the growth of GNP was made up of unproductive expenses.[10]

To finish this part, we will examine another implication of the comrades' reasoning, which holds that "at this level there is no necessity for extra-capitalist markets". Contrary to what the comrades announce, we have not found here the least new argument putting into question the necessity for a buyer outside capitalist relations of production. The schema that they put forward of is that of a "government which controls the entire economy (and so) can theoretically organise it" in such a way as to allow the enlargement of production (through the increase in the means of production and of the means of consumption), without having recourse to an external buyer and by paying the workers more than is necessary for the social cost of reproducing their labour power. Very good, but this does not represent enlarged accumulation as capitalism practises it. More precisely, enlarged accumulation could not be practised in this way under capitalism whatever the level of state control over society, and this is true whether or not the workers receive extra wages.

The explanation given by Rosa Luxemburg for why this is impossible, in her description of the infinite merry-go-round implied in the enlarged reproduction schemas (elaborated by Marx in Volume Two of Capital), refers to the concrete conditions of capitalist production. "According to Mark's diagram, Department I has the initiative: the process starts with the production of producer goods. And who requires these additional means of production? The diagram answers that Department II needs them in order to produce means of consumption in increased quantities. Well then, who requires these additional consumer goods? Department I, of course - replies the diagram - because it now employs a greater number of workers. We are plainly running in circles. From the capitalist point of view it is absurd to produce more consumer goods merely in order to maintain more workers, and to, turn out more means of production merely to keep this surplus of workers occupied."[11]

At this stage in our reflection it would be opportune to examine a remark made by the comrades: "If there were no credit, and if it were necessary to realise the whole of each year's production in money form then yes, an outside purchaser would be necessary for capitalist production. But this is not the case".

We agree with the comrades that it is not necessary for an external buyer to intervene in each cycle of production, as long as credit exists. This said, it doesn't eliminate the problem but simply extends it in time, ensuring that it is posed less often but at each step in a more significant way.[12] Once an external buyer is present, for example after 10 cycles of accumulation involving the cooperation of sectors one and two, and he buys the means of production or consumption needed to reimburse the debts contracted during those ten cycle of accumulation, then all goes well for capitalism. But if in the final instance there is no external buyer, the debts accumulated can never be reimbursed, or only at the price of new loans. Debt then swells inevitably and immeasurably until the outbreak of a new crisis which merely has the effect of increasing the spiral of debt. It is exactly this process that we have been seeing with our own eyes, in an increasingly serious manner, since the end of the 1960s.

Redistributing part of the extracted surplus value in the form of wage increases only, in the end, increases the cost of labour power. But this in no way eliminates the problem of the endless merry-go-round pointed out by Rosa Luxemburg. In a world made up only of capitalists and workers, there is no answer to the question which Marx kept posing in Volume Two of Capital "but what is the source of the money needed to pay for the increase both in means of production and means of consumption?" In another passage in The Accumulation of Capital, Rosa Luxemburg takes up this problem and poses it in a very simple way:   "Part of the surplus value is consumed by the capitalist class itself in form of consumer goods, the money exchanged for these being retained in the capitalists' pockets. But who can buy the products incorporating the other, the capitalised part of the surplus value? Partly the capitalists themselves - the diagram answers - who need new means of production for the purpose of expanding production, and partly the new workers who will be needed to work these new means of production. But that implies a previous capitalist incentive to enlarge production; if new workers are set to work with new means of production, there must have been a new demand for the products which are to be turned out... Where does the money for realising the surplus value come from if there is accumulation, i.e. not consumption but capitalisation of part of the surplus value?"[13] In fact, Marx himself provided a response to this question by pointing to "foreign markets".[14]

According to Luxemburg, bringing in a buyer who is outside capitalist relations of production resolves the problem of the possibility of accumulation. This also resolves the other contradiction in Marx's schemas that results from the difference in rhythm in the evolution of the organic composition of capital in the two sections (means of production and means of consumption).[15] In their text the two comrades come back to this contradiction noted by Rosa Luxemburg: "this distribution of profit obtained through the increase in productivity plays a complete part in accumulation. Not only that, it attenuates the problem identified by Luxemburg in Chapter 25 of The Accumulation of Capital, where she insists that with a tendency towards an ever-increasing organic composition of capital, the exchange between the two main sectors of capitalist production (production of the means of production on the one hand, and of the means of consumption on the other) becomes impossible in the long term". In this regard the comrades make the following comment: "Sternberg considers this point of made by Luxemburg is the most important ‘of all those that have been carefully avoided by those who criticise Luxemburg'. (Sternberg, El imperialismo)." Here again we don't share the position of the comrades, nor that of Sternberg, which doesn't really correspond to the way Rosa Luxemburg posed the problem.

For Luxemburg, this "contradiction" is resolved in society by placing "ever increasing portions of the surplus value earmarked for accumulation in Department I rather than in Department II. Both departments being only branches of the same social production - supplementary enterprises, if you like, of the "aggregate capitalist" - such a progressive transfer, for technical reasons, from one department to the other of a part of the accumulated surplus value would be wholly feasible, especially as it corresponds to the actual practice of capital. Yet this assumption is possible only so long as we envisage the surplus value earmarked for capitalisation purely in terms of value."[16] This presupposes the existence of "external buyers" regularly intervening in the successive cycles of accumulation.

In fact, while such a "contradiction" contains the risk of making exchange between the two sectors of production impossible, it is essentially in the abstract world of the schemas of enlarged reproduction, as soon as an "external buyer" is taken out of the equation:

"The adjustments we have tried out on Marx's diagram are merely meant to illustrate that technical progress, as he himself admits, must be accompanied by a relative growth of constant as against variable capital. Hence the necessity for a continuous revision of the ratio in which capitalised surplus value should be allotted to c and v respectively. In Marx's diagram, however, the capitalists are in no position to make these allocations at will, since the material form of their surplus value predetermines the forms of capitalisation. Since, according to Marx's assumption, all expansion of production proceeds exclusively by means of its own, capitalistically produced means of production."[17]

In fact we think that the comrades have never been convinced by Rosa Luxemburg's demonstration of the necessity of an outside buyer to permit capital to accumulate (or, if not, a resort to credit which is however non-reimbursable). On the other hand, we have not identified the way in which the objections they put forward, based on the arguments of Sternberg (who we also have good reasons to think did not really assimilate the essentials of Luxemburg's theory of accumulation[18]) actually put into the question the cardinal positions of this theory.

As we have already underlined in previous contributions, the fact that extra wages given to the workers do not serve to augment either constant capital or variable capital is already enough to conclude that, from the standpoint of capitalist rationality, these expenses are a total waste. From the strictly economic point of view, the same effects would be produced by increasing the personal expenditure of the capitalists. But to arrive at this conclusion it is not necessary to look to Rosa Luxemburg.[19] This said, if we have judged it necessary to reply to the comrades' objections to the theory of accumulation defended by Rosa Luxemburg, it is because we consider that the debate on this question helps to provide us with a more solid basis for understanding not only the phenomenon of the Thirty Glorious Years but also the problem of overproduction, which is hard to deny lies at the heart of the current difficulties of capitalism.

The part played by extra-capitalist markets and debt in accumulation during the 1950s and 60s

Two factors are at the origin of the increase in GNP during this period:

  • an augmentation of society's real wealth through the process of capital accumulation;
  • a whole series of unproductive expenditure, which grew as a consequence of the development of state capitalism and in particular the Keynesian measures that were put in place.

In this section we are interested in the way that accumulation took place. It was the opening of the accelerated exploitation of extra-capitalist markets which was at the origin of the phase of very powerful expansion of capitalism during the second half of the 19th century, a phase brought to a halt by the First World War. The period of capitalist decadence was globally characterised by the relative insufficiency of these markets in relation to the ever-growing need for outlets for commodities. But should we conclude from this that extra-capitalist markets no longer played anything but a marginal role in accumulation in the period of capitalism's life opened by the war of 1914? If that was the case, then these markets could not explain, even partially, the accumulation carried out in the 1950s and 60s. This is the reply given by the comrades in their contribution: "For us, the mystery of the Reconstruction boom cannot be explained by the remaining extra-capitalist markets, since these have been insufficient for the requirements of expanded capital accumulation ever since World War I". For our part, we think on the contrary that these extra-capitalist markets played an important role in accumulation, especially at the beginning of the 1950s, progressively decreasing until the end of the 1960s. The more insufficient they became, the more debt took over the role of external buyer for the capitalists; but obviously this was debt of a "new quality", having no prospect of being reduced. In fact, we have to look back to this period to find the origin of the phenomenon of the explosion of world debt that we are seeing today, even if the value contribution of debt in the 1950s and 1960s, compared to today's debts, is rather derisory.

Extra-capitalist markets

Statistically, it was in 1953 that we saw the high point  in the portion of exports from the developed countries towards the colonial countries, evaluated as a percentage of world exports (see figure 1, where the curve of imports from colonial countries is supposed to be the same as those of exports from developed countries towards the colonial countries.). The rate of 29% attained at that point was thus an indication of the importance of exports towards the extra-capitalist markets in the colonial countries since, in this period, the colonial markets were still to a large extent extra-capitalist. After that, this percentage diminished to around 22% of exports in 1966. In reality, the shrinking of this percentage, relative to GNP and not exports, was much more rapid than this since during this period GNP grew more rapidly than exports.

Figure 1 Imports from colonial markets as a percentage of world imports (tables taken from the BNP Guide Statistique 1972. Source: P Bairoch, op cit, OECD Communiqué, November 1970)

To the exports in the direction of the extra-capitalist markets of the colonies, we should add the sales achieved in capitalist countries like France, Japan, Spain, etc to sectors like agriculture which were as yet only partly integrated into capitalist relations of production. Similarly, in Eastern Europe there was still an extra-capitalist market, since the outcome of the First World War had condemned capitalist expansion in these countries to stagnation.[20]

Thus if we take into account all the sales carried out by regions dominated by capitalist relations of production towards those still producing under pre-capitalist relations, whether these were external or internal markets, we can see that they were able to support an important part of the real growth that took place during the Thirty Glorious Years, at least at the beginning of that period. In the final part of this article we will come back to the appreciation of the level of saturation of markets at the time capitalism entered into its period of decadence, in order to characterise this more precisely.


Right at the beginning of our internal debate, those who put forward the Keynesian-Fordist thesis opposed our hypothesis that debt played a major role in supporting demand during the 1950s and 60s, arguing that "total debt practically did not increase during the period 1945-1980. It was only in response to the crisis that it exploded. Debt can therefore not explain the vigorous post-war growth" The whole question is to know what lies behind this "practically did not" and whether, despite everything, this was enough to complete the process of accumulation alongside the extra-capitalist markets.

It is quite difficult to find statistical data for the evolution of world debt during the 1950s and 60s for most countries, except for the US.

We do have figures for the evolution of the total debt and of the American GNP, year by year, between 1950 and 1969. Studying this data (figure 2) should enable us to reply to the following question: is it possible that, each year, the growth of debt was sufficient to cope with the part of the augmentation of GNP which did not correspond to sales directed towards extra-capitalist markets? As we have already said, as soon as these markets are no longer available, it's debt that plays the role of buyer outside the capitalist relations of production.[21]



































































%annual Debt/GNP






















%over  the period Δ Debt /ΔGNP


Δ annual GNP






















Δ annual Debt






















(Δ annual Debt- Δ annual GNP)























Figure 2 Comparative evolution of US GNP and debt between 1950 and 1960[22] (Source (of GNP and debt): Federal Reserve Archival System for Economic Research,








%annual Debt/GNP






Figure 3 Evolution of debt in West Germany between 1950 and 1970. Source: Survey of Current Business (07/1975) - Monthly Review (vol 22, no.4, 09/190, p 6)

The increase in the value of debt as a percentage of the increase in the value of GNP is, for the period in question, 18%. In other words, the increase in the value of debt is almost double the increase in GNP over 20 years. In fact, this result shows that the evolution of debt in the USA was such that, overall during this period, it could on its own have ensured the growth in GNP in the US (and even play a part in the growth of other countries) without the need to have recourse to sales on extra-capitalist markets. Furthermore, we can see that each year, with the exception of 1951, the increase in debt is superior to that of GNP (it was only in 1951 that the difference between the increase in debt and the growth in GNP was negative). This means that, for all of these years except one, it is debt which took charge of the augmentation of GNP. This was more than was necessary given the contribution that extra-capitalist markets could still make at the time.

The conclusion from this regarding the US is the following: the theoretical analysis which holds that the resort to credit took over from sales to extra-capitalist markets in order to allow accumulation to take place is not refuted by the real evolution of debt in these countries. And while such a conclusion cannot be automatically generalised to all the industrial countries, the fact that it concerns the world's biggest economic power does confer a certain universality on it, and this is confirmed by the case of West Germany. With regard to the latter, we do dispose of statistics on the evolution of debt in relation to GNP (figure 3) which illustrate the same tendency.

What are the implications for our analysis of decadence?

What was the level of the saturation of markets in 1914?

The First World War broke out in the midst of a phase of prosperity for the world capitalist economy. It was not preceded by any open economic crisis; but still, it was the growing imbalance between the development of the productive forces and the relations of production which lay at the origin of the world conflict and, along with it, the entry of capitalism into its phase of decadence, The development of this system had been conditioned by the conquest of extra-capitalist markets, and the end of the colonial and economic conquest of the world by the great capitalist metropolises led the latter into a confrontation over their respective markets.  

Contrary to the interpretation by comrades Salome and Ferdinand, such a situation does not imply that "the extra-capitalist markets ...have since the First World War been insufficient with regard to the necessities of enlarged accumulation reached by capitalism" If that had been the case, the crisis would have manifested itself at a purely economic level before 1914.

It was these characteristics of the period (imperialist rivalries around the remaining non-capitalist territories) which were expressed very precisely in the following passage from Luxemburg: "Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment. Still the largest part of the world in terms of geography...."[23] On several occasions Luxemburg came back to the state of the world during this period: "alongside the old capitalist countries there are still those even in Europe where peasant and artisan production is still strongly predominant, like Russia, the Balkans, Scandinavia and Spain. And finally, there are huge continents besides capitalist Europe and North America, where capitalist production has only scattered roots, and apart from that the people of these continents have all sorts of economic systems, from the primitive communist to the feudal, peasantry and artisan."[24]

In fact, "The world war, while ultimately a product of the system's economic contradictions, had broken out before these contradictions could reach their full import at a 'purely' economic level. The crisis of 1929 was thus the first global economic crisis of the decadent period."[25]

If 1929 was the first significant manifestation, during the period of decadence, of the insufficiency of extra-capitalist markets, does this mean that after that date it was no longer possible for them to play any significant role in capitalist prosperity?

In the ten years that preceded 1929, it had not been possible to "dry up" the vast pre-capitalist zones which existed around the world in 1914: this was a period which was not marked by intensive economic activity on a world scale. Similarly, during the 1930s and a good part of the 1940s, the economy had slowed down. This is why the crisis of 1929, while revealing the limits of the extra-capitalist markets which had been opened up at this point, did not mark the end of any possibility of them playing a role in the accumulation of capital.

The exploitation of a virgin extra-capitalist market, or the better exploitation of an old one, depends to a large extent on factors such as the productivity of labour in the capitalist heartlands, which determines the competitiveness of the commodities they produce, and the means of transport available to capital to ensure the circulation of commodities. These factors constitute the motor of the expansion of capitalism around the world, as was already pointed out in The Communist Manifesto.[26] Furthermore, the process of decolonisation, by relieving trade of the burden of maintaining an apparatus of colonial domination, made certain extra-capitalist markets much more profitable.

The cycle "crisis-war-reconstruction-new crisis" is put into question

Some time ago the ICC corrected the false interpretation that the First World War was the consequence of an open economic crisis. As we have seen, the cause and effect relationship between crisis and war has to be considered by seeing the term crisis in broad terms, as a crisis of the relations of production.

As for the sequence "war-reconstruction-new crisis", we have also seen that it was not able to take account of the prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, which cannot be attributed to the post Second World War reconstruction. It's the same regarding the revival that took place after the First World War, when capitalism re-connected with the pre-war dynamic based on the exploitation of extra-capitalist markets, but on a much smaller scale given the effects of the destruction brought about by the war. There is indeed a process of reconstruction after war, but far from facilitating accumulation, it is part of the faux frais needed to get the economy going again.

And since 1967, when capitalism once again entered into a period of economic turbulence, crises have come one after the other and capitalism has ravaged the planet by multiplying imperialist conflicts without at all creating the conditions for a reconstruction that is synonymous with a return to prosperity, even in a limited and momentary sense.

As the ICC has shown, the entry into decadence did not mean the end of accumulation as the continuation of growth between 1914 and today has shown, although overall it has taken place at a rhythm inferior to the most rapid phases of the ascendant period (most of the second half of the19th century until 1914). This continued accumulation was based on the exploitation of extra-capitalist markets until the point where they were exhausted. It was then non-reimbursable debt which took up the baton, while at the same time piling up increasingly insurmountable contradictions.

Thus, and contrary to what's implied by the formula "crisis-war-reconstruction-new crisis", the mechanism of destruction/reconstruction was not what enabled the bourgeoisie to prolong capitalism's life, neither after the First World War nor the Second. The main instruments of such an enterprise, Keynesianism and above all debt, while having an immediate effect by postponing the impact of overproduction, are by no means a miraculous answer. The most striking proof of this is the abandonment of Keynesian measures in the 1980s and the present impasse of generalised, bottomless debt. 

Silvio, 1st Quarter, 2010.


[1]. Faced with the crisis, there is no lack of voices on the "left" (and even for a good part of the right these days) calling for a return to Keynesian measures, as can be seen from the following passage taken from a working document by Jacques Gouverneur, a teacher at the Catholic University of Louvin in Belgium. As the reader can see, the solution he puts forward involves making use of increases in productivity to install Keynesian measures and alternative policies...rather like the ones that were advocated by the left of capital in response to the aggravation of the economic situation at the end of the 1960s, with the aim of mystifying the working class about the possibility of reforming the system. "To get out of the crisis and solve the problem of unemployment, should we reduce - or, on the contrary should we increase - wages, social security benefits (unemployment pay, pensions, health benefits, family allowances) public spending (education, culture, public works...)? In other words: should we carry on with restrictive policies inspired by neo-liberalism (as we have done since the beginning of the 1980s) or should we on the contrary advocate a return to the expansive policies, inspired by Keynesianism, and applied during the period of growth between 1945 and 1975? In other words: can enterprises simultaneously increase their profits and their outlets? For this two conditions are necessary. The first resides in a general increase in productivity, in the sense that with the same number of workers (or inhabitants) the economy produces a greater volume of goods and services. To use an image, an increase in productivity over a given period...enlarges the size of the "cake" produced, increases the number of slices to be given out. In a period when productivity increases, the establishment of Keynesian measures is the second condition for enterprises to have at their disposal bigger profits and wider outlets...The perpetuation of neo-liberal policies will multiply social dramas and will lead into a major economic contradiction: it accentuates the divorce between the global growth of profits and the global growth of outlets. But it does favour enterprises and the dominant groups: the latter will continue to exert effective pressure on the public authorities (national or supranational) in order to prolong these pernicious policies. The return to Keynesian policies presupposes a change in the current balance of forces: it will not however be enough to resolve the economic and social problems highlighted by the structural crisis of the capitalist system. The solution to these problems demands alternative policies: an increase in public taxes (essentially on profits) in order to finance socially useful production, reduction of working time in order to develop levels of employment and free time, a sliding composition of wages in order to promote solidarity" (our emphasis).

[2]. The presentation of this debate and of the three main positions involved can be found in the article "ICC internal debate: The causes of the post-war economic boom" in IR n° 133; we then published the following articles: "The origins, dynamics, and limits of Keynesian-Fordist state capitalism" in IR n° 135; "The bases of capitalist accumulation" and "War economy and state capitalism" in IR n° 136; "In defence of the "Keynesian-Fordist state capitalism" thesis  (reply to Silvio and Jens)" in IR n° 138.

[3]. "In defence of the "Keynesian-Fordist state capitalism" thesis  (reply to Silvio and Jens)" in IR n° 138.

[4]. If the present contribution doesn't look into Salome and Ferdinand's response to the war economy and state capitalism thesis, this is because we see the discussion raised by the latter as being less of a priority, though still necessary to come back to. This is because this thesis is not first and foremost determined by a particular conception of the process of accumulation but more by the geopolitical conditions in which accumulation takes place.

[5]. "War, militarism and imperialist blocs in the decadence of capitalism", International Review n° 52, cited in the article which opened up this debate in IR n° 133. '

[6]. See  "The decadence of capitalism: the mortal contradictions of bourgeois society" in IR n° 139

[7]. "Origins, dynamic and limits of Keynesian-Fordist state capitalism", IR n° 135

[8]. See "The bases of capitalist accumulation" in IR n° 136

[9]. See the section on the extra-capitalist markets and debt thesis in "The causes of the post-1945 economic boom" in IR n° 133. The references in Marx are from Capital Vol. 3, part III, "The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall", chapter XV, "Exposition of the internal contradictions of the law", 3, "Excess capital and excess population".

[10]. On this point see the section on extra-capitalist markets and debt in the article in IR n° 133.

[11]. The Accumulation of Capital, chapter 7, "Analysis of Marx's diagram of enlarged reproduction".

[12]. It is undeniable that credit plays a regulating role and makes it possible to attenuate the need for extra-capitalist markets during each cycle. But it does not at all do away with the basic problem, which can be looked at, as Rosa Luxemburg puts it, through the study of an abstract cycle resulting from the elementary cycles of various capitals: "The characteristic feature of enlarged reproduction of the aggregate social capital - just as in our previous assumption of simple reproduction - is the reproduction of individual capitals, since production as a whole, whether regarded as simple or as enlarged production, can in fact only occur in the form of innumerable independent movements of reproduction performed by private individual capitals" Accumulation of Capital, chapter 6. Similarly, it is obvious that only in certain of these cycles does an external buyer intervene

[13].  These two passages are from chapters 7 and 9.

[14]. This response can be found, among other places, in volume 3 of Capital: "How could there otherwise be a shortage of demand for the very commodities which the mass of the people lack, and how would it be possible for this demand to be sought abroad, in foreign markets, to pay the labourers at home the average amount of necessities of life? This is possible only because in this specific capitalist interrelation the surplus-product assumes a form in which its owner cannot offer it for consumption, unless it first reconverts itself into capital for him. If it is finally said that the capitalists have only to exchange and consume their commodities among themselves, then the entire nature of the capitalist mode of production is lost sight of; and also forgotten is the fact that it is a matter of expanding the value of the capital, not consuming it". (Part III, "The law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall", chapter XV, "Exposition of the internal contradictions of the law", 3, "Excess capital and excess population").

[15]. The rising organic composition of capital (i.e. the greater growth of constant capital in relation to variable capital) in the means of production sector is on average faster than in the means of consumption sector, given the technological characteristics of these two sectors.

[16]. Accumulation of Capital, "Contradictions within the diagram of enlarged reproduction".

[17]. Ibid

[18]. Despite the excellent illustrations and interpretations of the development of world capitalism which he produced, drawing from the theory of Rosa Luxemburg, in particular in The Conflict of the Century, we can nevertheless ask whether he really assimilated this theory in depth. Thus, in this same book, Sternberg analyses the crisis of the 1930s as a result of capitalism's inability during this period to synchronise the increase in production with that of consumption: "the attempt to synchronise, on the basis of the capitalist profit economy and without any major external expansion, on the one hand the growth in production and productivity, and on the other hand the increase in consumption, ended in failure. The crisis was the result of this failure" (p 344). This leads us to understand that such synchronisation is possible under capitalism and this is the beginning of an abandonment of the rigour and coherence of Rosa Luxemburg's theory. This is confirmed in Sternberg's study of the post- Second World War period, where he develops the idea that it is possible to transform society through nationalisations and to improve workers' living conditions. The following passage gives us a glimpse of this: "...the integral realisation of the Labour programme of 1945 was a great step towards the complete socialisation of the British economy, making it possible for further steps in the same direction to be taken more easily...During the first years after the war, the Labour government sought to carry out the mandate conferred on it by the people. Keeping strictly to the methods and means of traditional democracy, it brought in radical changes to the capitalist state, society and economy" (chapter headed "The world today", p 629). The aim here is not to make a radical critique of Sternberg's reformism. It is simply a question of showing that his reformist approach necessarily involved a considerable underestimation of the economic contradictions that assail capitalist society, an under-estimation that is hardly compatible with Rosa Luxemburg's theory as developed in The Accumulation of Capital   

[19]. As illustrated in our text "The bases of capitalist accumulation", which is based on the writings of Paul Mattick. For the latter, unlike Rosa Luxemburg, for accumulation to be possible, the intervention of  buyers outside capitalist relations of production is not necessary. 

[20]. The Conflict of the Century, III, "The stagnation of capitalism; the halt in capitalist expansion; the halt in the external expansion of capitalism".

[21]. We should not however forget that the function of debt is not only to create an artificial market.

[22]. % annual Debt/GNP = (Debt/GNP)*100;  % over the period  Δ Debt/ΔGNP = ((Debt in 1969 - Debt in 1949) / (GNP in 1969 - GNP in 1949))*100 ; Δ annual GNP = GNP in (n) - GNP in (n-1) ; Δ annual Debt for the year (n) = Debt for the year n - Debt for the year (n-1) 

[23]. The Accumulation of Capital, "Protective tariffs and accumulation", our emphases.

[24]. The Accumulation of Capital, an Anticritique, our emphases.

[25]. "Resolution on the international situation" 16th ICC Congress, International Review n° 122.

[26]. "The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. The cheap prices of commodities are the heavy artillery with which it batters down all Chinese walls, with which it forces the barbarians' intensely obstinate hatred of foreigners to capitulate" (our emphasis).


General and theoretical questions: 

The Free Association of German Trade Unions (FVdG) on the road to revolutionary syndicalism

In the first part of this article ,[1] we looked at the controversy within the German trade union movement and the SPD (Social Democratic Party) that led to the creation of the Free Association of German Trade Unions (Freie Vereinigung Deutscher Gewerkschaften, FVDG), the organization that would be the precursor of German revolutionary syndicalism. This survey covered the period from the 1870s to 1903. The FVDG, founded in 1897, explicitly saw itself from then up until 1903, as a combative part of the Social Democratic trade union movement. It had no links with revolutionary syndicalism or anarchism, which were very active in other countries like France or Spain. In a very logical way and at the theoretical level, the FVDG defended the need for workers organised in unions to be involved not only in economic matters but in political ones too.

Owing to dispersion from the time of its birth under the anti-socialist laws and to disputes with the General Trade Unions Confederation, the FVDG was not able to develop sufficient internal agreement to wage a collective struggle. The IWW, an established revolutionary syndicalist organisation in the United States, was far ahead of the FVDG in centralising its activity. The preference for federalist dispersal, even if not theorised in the FVDG, remained a constant weakness of this organisation. Confronted with the appearance of the mass strike, the reluctance to centralise its combat would increasingly hinder the FVDG's political activity.

The discussion around the new forms of struggle that started with the appearance of the workers' mass strikes in the early years of the 20th century proved a big challenge to the FVDG. As a consequence, it began moving towards revolutionary syndicalism. As we will show in this article, this tendency would continue to strengthen up to the outbreak of the First World War.

The mass strike eclipses the old trade union spirit

At the start of the 20th century the growth of the mass strike was seen more and more to be a new form of the class struggle at the international level. With its spontaneous dynamic towards extension, going beyond the professional and trade divisions of the unions and raising political demands, the mass strike was quite different from the practices of the old class struggle unionism of 19th century, completely organised by the trade union apparatus, limited to sectoral and economic demands. The mass strikes, which sprang up across the world, also exhibited a working class vitality that effectively rendered obsolete strikes that were well prepared in advance and completely dependent on the state of the unions' strike funds.

Already in 1891, a strike of 125,000 workers had taken place in Belgium, and then in 1893 another of 250,000 workers. Then in 1896 and 1897 there were general strikes of textile workers in St. Petersburg in Russia. In 1900 it was the turn of miners in the U.S. state of Pennsylvania and then, in 1902 and 1903, those in Austria and France. In 1902 there was a new mass strike in Belgium for universal suffrage and in 1903 it was the turn of railway workers in the Netherlands. In September 1904 there was a national strike wave in Italy. In 1903 and 1904 big strikes shook the whole of southern Russia.

At this time, Germany, despite the strengths of its powerful union traditions and its concentrated and organised working class, was not at the epicentre of the new phase of class struggle that was spreading in powerful waves. Nevertheless, the question of the mass strike was passionately debated within the ranks of the working class in Germany. The old notion of the unions "controlling the class struggle" so as not to disturb a sacrosanct "public order", came into direct conflict with the energy and the solidarity of the proletariat in the new mass struggles. As Arnold Roller wrote in 1905 during a struggle of miners in the Ruhr that involved 200,000 workers: "They [the unions] were constrained in having to turn strikes into a kind of peaceful demonstration, with a wait-and-see approach, with the possibility of getting some kind of concessions in recognition of our ‘reasonable behaviour'. The miners in the other coalfields organised in a similar spirit, in Saxony, Bavaria, etc., showing their solidarity in their support of the strike and, paradoxically, in working overtime to produce thousands of tons of extra coal - that would be shipped and used by industry in the service of Capital during the strike [...] While the workers in the Ruhr suffered from hunger, their representatives in Parliament negotiated and got promises legally of some improvements but only after there was a return to work. Of course, the German trade union leadership rejected the idea of putting strong pressure on the bosses by extending the strike across the whole coal industry."[2]

The celebrated "debate on the mass strike" in 1905/06 inside the SPD and the German trade unions was undoubtedly inspired to a large extent by the powerful mass strike of 1905 in Russia which surpassed everything that had gone before it in size and political dynamic.[3]

For the unions, the mass strikes were a direct challenge to their existence and historical function. Did it mean their role of organising the permanent economic defence of the working class was at an end? The mass strike of 1905 in Russia, a direct reaction to the appalling misery for the working class and peasantry caused by the Russo-Japanese war, had shown precisely that political questions like war and, ultimately, revolution, were now central to the workers' struggle. Issues like these went far beyond the limits of traditional union thinking. As Anton Pannekoek very clearly wrote: "Now this is entirely in harmony with the innermost character of trade unionism. Trade unionism is an action of the workers that does not go beyond the limit of capitalism. The aim is not to replace capitalism with another form of production, but to secure good living conditions within capitalism. Its character is not revolutionary, but conservative".[4] 

To blame the leaders of the powerful German unions for a lack of flexibility because they did not sympathise with the political form of struggle of the mass strike doesn't give the full picture. Their defensive attitude vis-à-vis the mass strike was a direct product of their nature and how the union organisations they represented saw their role, which meant they were unable to meet the new demands of the class struggle.

Hence, the political organisations and parties of the working class needed to develop an understanding of the nature of the new form of struggle the workers were engaged in with the mass strike. However, "the overwhelming majority of Social Democratic leaders still mouthed the axiom: the general strike is the general nonsense".[5] Unwilling to accept reality, they believed that the appearance of the mass strike was nothing but a clear and simple expression of the "general strike" that was advocated by the anarchists and the supporters of the former co-founder of Dutch Social Democracy, Domela Nieuwenhuis. A few decades previously, in his text The Bakuninists at work in 1873, Engels had, quite justifiably, called the vision of a general strike prepared behind the scenes with a written plan of insurrection, totally stupid. The old vision of the "general strike" was based on the idea that a simultaneous and general stoppage of work led by unions would weaken the power of the ruling class and bring it down within a few hours. In this sense, the leaders of the SPD and the unions justified their reservations and used Engels' words as an excuse to reject and ignore the opening up of the debate on the mass strikes called for by the Left around Rosa Luxemburg inside the SPD.

However, a closer examination of the false opposition between the "anarchist general strike" and the "day to day work of the unions", shows clearly that the old anarchist dream of a grandiose general economic strike and the conception of the main union federation were not in fact very far apart. In both these conceptions, it was exclusively the numbers involved in the struggle that mattered most and they brushed to one side the need to address the political questions that were now posed, at least potentially, by massive struggles.

Up to this point the FVDG had always supported workers' political activity. Would it be in a position to react to events?

The position of the FVDG on the mass strike

Prompted by the experiences of massive movements in Europe at the end of the 19th and the start of 20th century, in 1904 the FVDG began discussing the mass strike ahead of the Amsterdam Socialist Congress where this question was on the agenda. Within the ranks of the FVDG, where the first attempts at understanding the phenomenon of the mass strike began, the debate came up against a certain conception of union work. In its general view of how union work should be conducted, the FVDG didn't distinguish itself in any way at all from the main Social Democratic unions. However, its weak influence did not put it in a position to control the class struggle, and it was much more open to the question of the mass strike than the large trade unions.

Gustav Kessler, co-founder of the "Localist" current and political authority inside the FVDG, died in June 1904. In the FVDG leadership he had represented the strongest orientation towards Social Democracy. The highly heterogeneous nature of the FVDG, a federated union of tradesmen, had always left it tolerant of minority anarchist tendencies, like that around Andreas Kleinlein Platz. Kessler's death and the election of Fritz Kater to the head of the FVDG executive committee in the summer of 1904 would initiate a period of greater openness vis-à-vis revolutionary syndicalist ideas.

It was above all the French revolutionary syndicalism of the CGT, with its concept of the "general strike", which seemed to be able to find a response in part of the FVDG. Under Kessler's influence, the FVDG had until early 1904 refused to make official propaganda in support of the general strike. Reacting against this, the FVDG then asked itself whether different expressions of the recent mass strike across the world were or were not historical confirmation of the old and theatrical vision of the general strike.

Two documents reveal the FVDG's clearest understanding of the mass strike: the pamphlet published by Raphael Friedeberg in 1904, Parliamentarism and the general strike, and a resolution adopted in August of that year by the FVDG. The viewpoint of Friedeberg (he remained a member of the SPD until 1907) was very influential inside the union and in its subsequent thinking.[6]

Friedberg's pamphlet is devoted primarily to a correct and subtly formulated critique of the destructive and stultifying influence of parliamentarism as it was then practiced by the Social Democratic leadership: "Parliamentary methods, the overvaluation of parliamentarism, are too entrenched in the masses of the German proletariat. They are also too accepting of it, everything, any changes to social relations, has to come from legislation; all that anyone has to do is to place his socialist ballot paper in the box every two years (...) This is a very bad way of educating the proletariat. (...) I am willing to concede that parliamentary democracy has had an historical function to carry out in the historical formation of the proletariat, and it will have again." As can be seen, this rejection of parliamentarism was not a rejection in principle, but was only applicable to the current historical stage in which that form of propaganda had become totally ineffective for the proletariat.

Just as Rosa Luxemburg had done, he emphasised the emancipatory nature of mass strike for the proletariat: "The workers educate themselves through the strike. It gives them moral strength, gives them a sense of solidarity, a way of thinking and a proletarian awareness. The idea of the general strike gives unions a horizon just as broad as that given to it until now by the idea of political power of the movement." He also wrote about the ethical aspect to the struggle of the working class: "If workers want to overthrow the class State, if they want to build a new world order, they must be better than the strata they are fighting against, those they want to remove. This is why they must learn to reject everything that is base and vile in themselves, everything that is unethical. This is why the principle characteristic behind the idea of the general strike, is that of an ethical means of struggle."

What is noticeable about Friedeberg's text is the use of the term "general strike" even when he's talking about the actual political mass strike of the previous year.

Even if the spirit of Friedeberg's pamphlet is one of real indignation against the prevailing conservatism of the main union federation, something he shared with Luxemburg, he came to quite different conclusions:

He clearly rejected the tendency inside the FVDG to confront political questions: "we are not carrying out any political struggle and, therefore, we do not need any form of political struggle. Our struggle is economic and psychological."  This is a clear break with the previous position of the FVDG. By making an equation between "parliamentarianism" and "political struggle" he rejected the political dynamic expressed by the mass strike.

In addition, Friedeberg developed a non-materialist vision (albeit that of a very small minority inside the FVDG) of the class struggle based on a psychological concept and on the strategy of a "rejection of personality"- which he called "historic psyche". We can see here that he agreed specifically with some clearly anarchist ideas according to which it is the spirit of individual rebellion that is the engine of class struggle and not the collective development of class consciousness.

Although Friedeberg correctly poured scorn on the reformist social-democrat idea of the proletariat gradually taking state power, he tended to adopt the same kind of gradualist conception but from a syndicalist perspective: "In these last years alone the unions have increased in size by 21% and membership has risen to over a million. Since these things follow a pattern, we can say that in three or four years we will have two million members, and in ten years between three and four million. And when the idea of the general strike has penetrated the proletariat more deeply (...) it will call on between four and five million workers to stop work and then to eliminate the class State." In fact, the largest ever recruitment of the working class into the unions provided no better conditions for proletarian revolution but, on the contrary, was a barrier to it.

Behind the propaganda about a "pure non-violent means of struggle", Friedeberg also hugely underestimated the ruling class's capacity for unleashing brutal repression in a revolutionary situation: "What the general strike fundamentally represents is a way of struggling ethically. [...] What comes afterwards, when our adversaries are seeking retribution and we are having to defend ourselves legitimately, we cannot here foresee."

Friedeberg saw the mass strike essentially as confirmation of the old anarchist idea of the general strike. His greatest weakness was in not recognising that the mass strikes that were taking place could only be developed through the political activity of the working class. Breaking with the tradition of FVDG, which had hitherto continually warned against a purely economic struggle, he reduced the perspective of the mass strike solely to this aspect. The grass roots membership of the FVDG was not united behind the views of Friedeberg who represented a minority wing moving towards anarchism and leading the FVDG towards revolutionary syndicalism. However Friedeberg's positions were adopted for a short period by the FVDG. Friedeberg himself left the FVDG in 1907 to return to an anarchist community in Ascona.

The FVDG could not understand the mass strike by following the theories of Friedeberg. The revolutionary spirit that was developing, expressed by this new form of working class struggle, posed the question of a fusion of political and economic questions. The question of the general strike, which was once again the FVDG's prime concern, was a step backwards in relation to the mass strike and a retreat from the political questions of the day.

However, despite all the confusions that Friedeberg's writing brought back to the surface, the debate within the FVDG did help to stir up the German workers' movement. He deserves some credit since, well before the brilliant and famous pamphlets on the mass strike of 1905 (like those of Luxemburg and Trotsky) were written, he did raise this question inside the SPD.

It is hardly surprising that the FVDG (which was itself an amalgam of various unions) still continued at that time to see trade unions as revolutionary organs. It would have been a step forward if the FVDG had begun to question its own form of organisation. On the other hand, even Rosa Luxemburg still counted a lot on the unions, which she described in many countries (for example in Russia) as a direct product of the mass strike. It took almost five years before Trotsky's book, 1905, which chronicled the experience of workers' councils as revolutionary organs replacing the unions, was published.[7] What remained a constant in the FVDG, and the organisations that succeeded it, was their blindness vis-à-vis the workers' councils and a deep-seated attachment to the unions as revolutionary organs. This weakness would prove fatal in the revolutionary uprising in Germany after the war.

Secret negotiations opposing the mass strike and the debate in Mannheim in 1906

Inside the SPD, a fight broke out over the question of whether the mass strike should be discussed at the Party Congress in 1906. The Party leadership tried feverishly to rule out discussing the most important manifestation of class struggle claiming there was little interest in the topic. The SPD Congress in Jena in 1905 only took a position on its form in a resolution declaring that the mass strike was "a measure worth promoting in the future". It reduced the mass strike to only being an ultimate means of defence against a possible withdrawal of the right to vote. The majority of the SPD leadership characterised the lessons drawn from the mass strike in Russia by Rosa Luxemburg as "revolutionary romanticism" and declared that they had no possible application in Germany.

It is not surprising that shortly after the Jena Congress in February 1906, the SPD leadership and the central committee of the major unions agreed in secret negotiations to work together to prevent mass strikes. The arrangement was nonetheless uncovered. In its newspaper Die Einigkeit (Unity) the FVDG published sections of the minutes of the meeting that had fallen into its hands. Among other things, they read: "The central committee of the Party has no intention of spreading the political general strike, but will try, as far as possible, to prevent it". Its publication produced, "the indignation of villains caught red-handed" inside the SPD leadership and meant that they had to put the debate on the mass strike back on the agenda of the Party Congress on 22nd and 23rd September 1906, whether they liked it or not.

Bebel's first words in his inaugural speech to the Congress in Mannheim reflected the cowardice and ignorance of the party leadership, who felt highly inconvenienced by having to confront a question they had in fact hoped to avoid: "When we left the Jena Congress last year, nobody foresaw that we would have to discuss the mass strike again this year. (...) Because of the gross indiscretion of Die Einigkeit in Berlin, we are now facing a big discussion."[8] To overcome the embarrassment of the secret talks, brought into the open by Die Einigkeit, Bebel simply resorted to mocking the FVDG and Friedeberg's contribution: "No-one can understand how it is possible for the unions organised locally to achieve anything in the context of these developments and with the power of the employer class vis-à-vis the working class. In any case, the party leadership and the great majority of the party believe that local unions are totally powerless in carrying out their duties for the working class".[9] Who, eight years later, faced with the vote for war credits, was "Totally powerless to assume its duties for the working class"? Precisely the leadership of the same SPD! The FVDG, by contrast, faced with the question of war in 1914, was able to take a proletarian position.

During the very poor debate on the mass strike that took place at the Congress, instead of any political arguments, recriminations and bureaucratic justifications were served up, to explain why Party members should stick to the resolution on the mass strike made the previous year at the Jena Congress, or the one at the trade unions' Congress in May 1906, which clearly rejected the mass strike. The discussion revolved around the proposal of Bebel and Legien to give an ultimatum to Party members organised inside the FVDG that they return to the main union federation, under threat of exclusion from the Party should they refuse.

Rather than dealing with the political lessons of victorious mass strikes, or discussing Rosa Luxemburg's pamphlet published in the previous week, the debate was reduced to a deplorable quarrel over legal niceties!

While the invited delegate of the FVDG, the Berlin editor of Die Einigkeit, was ridiculed, Rosa Luxemburg strongly objected to plans drawn up to sideline the key debate on the mass strike with formal and purely disciplinary measures: "Furthermore, I think it's irresponsible the way the Party wields a big stick against a group of determined trade unionists, and that we have to endorse the quarrel and discord within the party. There are still undoubtedly a great number of good comrades to be found in the local organisations and it would be irresponsible if, in providing direct help to the unions with this matter, we introduce discord in our own ranks. We respect the opinion that the Localists must not push the dispute in the unions to the level of hindering the union organisation; but in the name of sacrosanct equal rights, we must still at least recognise the same thing with regard the Party. If we directly exclude anarcho-socialists from the Party, as the central committee of the Party proposes, we will be in a very sad state: we will lose our drive and energy since it's a matter of imposing restrictions on the left of our party, while leaving the doors wide open as before on the right.

"Von Elm has told us what Die Einigkeit or a conference of Local organisations would say, as an illustration of what he calls anarchist absurdity: ‘The general strike is the only means of truly revolutionary class struggle'. Of course, this is nonsense and nothing but. However, dear friends, this is no further away from social democratic tactics and principles than the proposals of David showing us that the only means of struggle for social democracy is the legal parliamentary road. We are told that the Localists, the anarcho-socialists, are gradually undermining social democratic principles with their agitation. But when a member of the central committee, like Bringmann, declares himself to be against class struggle in principle as he did at your conference in February, he is also attacking the principles of the grass roots members of social democracy."[10]

As she did at the Hamburg Party Congress in 1900, in the debate on trade unions, Luxemburg opposed the attempts to use the weaknesses of the FVDG as a convenient pretext to suppress key questions. She saw that the greatest danger did not come from a minority union like the FVDG moving towards revolutionary syndicalism, whose militants were often aligned with the left wing inside the SPD, but rather from the centre and the right of the Party.

The FVDG split and the final break with the SPD in 1908

To the leaderships of the reformist SPD and the main union federation, the FVDG in no way represented the same danger as the revolutionary wing of the Social Democracy around Liebknecht and Luxemburg. However, the revolutionary wing could not take too much account of the FVDG simply due to the fact that it constituted a small minority and did not really acknowledge the lessons of mass strikes. The international appearance of powerful revolutionary syndicalist movements from 1905, like the IWW in the United States, did make revolutionary syndicalist tendencies a potential danger to reformism.

The strategy, unveiled in 1906 at the Mannheim Party Congress, to pressurise members of the FVDG to join the main union federation, continued for months. On the one hand, some experienced and militant members of the Local unions were offered paid positions in the bureaucracies of the Social Democratic unions. On the other hand, for the SPD Congress that would be held in 1908 in Nuremberg there appeared another motion on the incompatibility of dual SPD and FVDG affiliation.

But the FVDG would fail above all because of its ambiguities and because of the differences of orientations within its professional associations. At the time when it was important to understand the political mass strike and the emergence of workers' councils, it broke up following an argument over whether to rejoin the main union federation or to move towards revolutionary syndicalism, subordinating political questions to economic ones. At its Extraordinary Congress in January 1908, the FVDG would examine a motion from the stonemasons asking the unions to dissolve the FVDG into the main union federation. Although this motion was rejected, it heralded a split in the FVDG and thus the end of the long history of immense union opposition based on the proletarian tradition of social democracy. More than a third of its members left the FVDG immediately to join the main union federation. The number of members fell from 20,000 to less than 7,000 in 1910.

It was easy therefore for the leadership of social democracy, in September 1908, to endorse the split within the FVDG at the Party Congress with a permanent ban on dual membership of the FVDG and SPD. After this, the remnants of the FVDG no longer posed a serious danger for Legien et al.

In the history of the birth of revolutionary syndicalism in Germany, the year 1908 thus marks the beginning of a new stage, with a change of direction towards revolutionary syndicalism, and this with less than half of the members of the FVDG remaining.

Towards revolutionary syndicalism

Since the FVDG from its birth had appeared as a union opposition movement firmly linked to social democracy, hence to a political organisation of the workers' movement, it was never characterised, before 1908, as revolutionary syndicalist. Indeed, revolutionary syndicalism does not simply mean a wildly enthusiastic commitment exclusively to trade union activities, but also the adoption of a conception that sees the union as the only form of organisation for overthrowing capitalism - a role that, by its nature as an organ of struggle for reforms, it has never been and will never be able to play.

The new programme of 1911, "What do the Localists want? Programme, goals and methods of the FVDG", indicated the direction it was taking and expressed its viewpoint as follows: "The struggle for the emancipation of the workers is mainly an economic struggle that the union, according to its nature as an organisation of producers, must carry out on all fronts. [...] The union (not the political party) is alone in its capacity to expand the economic power of the workers in the right direction..."[11]

In the preceding years, the big mass strikes were evidence of the spontaneous dynamic of the class struggle, and in 1903 the Bolsheviks abandoned the concept of the "mass party", while at the same time clarifying the need for organisations of revolutionary political minorities. However, the new programme of the FVDG, albeit with good will and while fighting against the old "dualism", started from false conclusions: "This is why we reject the harmful dualism (bipartition), as practiced by social democracy and its big trade unions. By this we mean the absurd division of workers' organisations into political and union branches. (...) Because we reject the parliamentary struggle and have replaced it with a direct political struggle through union methods and not for political power, but for social emancipation, any workers' political party, like Social Democracy loses all rationale."[12]

This new program showed itself to be totally blind to the historical emergence and revolutionary character of the workers' councils and took refuge in hopeful theorising of a new type of union as:

  • an alternative to the (de facto) out-dated mass party;
  • an alternative to large bureaucratic unions;
  • an organ of revolution;
  • and finally, an architect of the new society.

What a daunting task!

In the manner characteristic of revolutionary syndicalism, the FVDG defended a clear opposition to the bourgeois state and to the unbridled parliamentarism of the time. It correctly underlined the need for the struggle of the working class against war and militarism.

In the years preceding the First World War, the FVDG did not move closer to anarchism. The theories of Friedeberg having led it away from social democracy towards anarchism in 1904-07, although they were emblematic, did not signify a shift of the whole organisation towards anarchism. Instead, the forces strongly oriented towards revolutionary syndicalism gathered around Fritz Kater also feared the kind of "stewardship" on the part of the anarchists like that exerted by the SPD over the unions. In Die Einigkeit in August 1912, Kater again characterised anarchism as being "just as superfluous as any other political party."[13] It would be wrong to assume that it was the presence of known anarchists within it that led the FVDG to revolutionary syndicalism. Hostility towards political parties, born of the hard controversies within the SPD, was a common feature of all anarchist organisations in the years before the war. It is in no way the influence of the charismatic anarchist Rudolf Rocker in 1919 that introduced the hostility towards political parties within the organisation that succeeded the FVDG, the FAUD. Such a development had already clearly occurred. Rocker theorised the hostility of German revolutionary syndicalism to political parties much more clearly in the 1920s than was the case before the war.

The years before the outbreak of war in 1914 were marked for the FVDG by a withdrawal into itself. The big debates within the parent organisations were at an end. The split with the Confederation of affiliated trade unions had taken place in 1897. The break with the SPD was a good ten years later, in 1908.

Hence a curious situation came about, revealing the recurring paradox that revolutionary syndicalism comes up against: defining itself as a union wishing to have firm roots within the working class at large, the membership of the FVDG did, however, considerably reduce. Among its 7,000 or so members only a fraction were fully active. It was no longer a union! The remains of the FVDG formed propaganda circles for revolutionary syndicalist ideas instead, and had more of the character of a political group. But they didn't want to be a political organisation!

The vestiges of the FVDG remained - and for the working class this is absolutely key - on an internationalist terrain and was opposed, despite all their shortcomings, to the militarism and war of the bourgeoisie. The FVDG and its press were banned in August 1914, immediately after the declaration of war, and many of its still-active members imprisoned.

In a future article, we will examine the role of revolutionary syndicalists in Germany up until 1923, a period covering the First World War, the German revolution and the international revolutionary wave.

Mario, 6/11/2009


[1]. "The birth of revolutionary syndicalism in the German workers' movement", International Review n°.137

[2]. Arnold Roller (Siegfried Nacht), Die direkte Aktion, 1912. (our translation). Roller personifies what was until then a very small anarchist wing inside the FVDG.

[3]. See International Review n°s 90, 122, 123, 125 in English, Spanish and French.

[4]. Anton Pannekoek, "Trade Unionism ", International Council Correspondence, n°. 2 - January 1936. Published in English under the pseudonym, John Harper.

[5]. Paul Frolich, Rosa Luxemburg, Her Life and Work, section on "The political mass strike", Monthly Review Press, p128.

[6]. Friedeberg didn't come from anarchism himself but was the local representative of the SPD and a leading member of the Berlin Social Democratic Party.

[7]. Trotsky initially wrote Our Revolution in 1907. Some of the chapters became the basis of his book, 1905, which was written in 1908/1909.

[8]. Protokoll über die Verhandlungen des Parteitages der Sozialdemokratischen Partei Deutschlands, Mannheim, 23. bis 29. September 1906 (Verbal record of the debates at the congress of the Geman Social Democratic Party, Mannheim, 1906), page 227(Our translation).

[9]. Ibid, p.295. (Our translation).

[10]. Ibid, p.315 (Our translation).

[11]. Our translation.

[12]. Our translation.

[13]. See Dirk H. Müller, Gewerkschaftliche Versammlungsdemokratie und Arbeiterdelegierte vor 1918, p.191-198.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 


What are workers' councils? (Part 2): The resurgence and crisis of workers’ councils in 1917

The aim of this series is to respond to a question posed by many comrades (readers and sympathisers), above all among the youngest: what are the workers' councils? In the first article of this series ,[1] we saw how they appeared for the first time in history in the heat of the 1905 revolution in Russia and how the defeat of this revolution led to their disappearance. In this second part, we are going to see how they reappeared during the February 1917 revolution and how, under the domination of the old Menshevik and Social Revolutionary (SR) parties who betrayed the working class, they distanced themselves from the will and growing consciousness of the worker masses, becoming, in July 1917, a point of support for the counter-revolution.[2]

Why did the soviets disappear between 1905 and 1917?

Oskar Anweiler, in his work The Soviets,[3] underlined how numerous attempts took place to revive the soviets following the defeat of the revolution in December 1905. A workers' council thus appeared in Spring 1906 in St. Petersburg, which sent delegates to factories in order to push for the renewal of the soviet. A meeting, which regrouped 300 delegates in Summer 1906, came to nothing because of the difficulties in taking up the struggle again. This council wasted away little by little with the weakening of the mobilisation and definitively disappeared in spring 1907. In Moscow, Kharkov, Kiev, Poltava, Ekaterinburg, Baku, Batoum, Sostoum and Kronstadt, councils of the unemployed, though more or less ephemeral, also appeared throughout 1906.

 Some soviets also appeared sporadically in 1906-07 in some industrial towns of the Urals. It was however in Moscow that the most serious attempt to set up a soviet took place. A strike broke out in July and quickly spread to numerous workers' concentrations. It rapidly mandated some 150 delegates who aimed to meet up, form an Executive Committee and launch appeals for the extension of struggles and the formation of soviets. Conditions however were not those of 1905 and the government, aware of the faint echo aroused by the mobilisation in Moscow, unleashed a violent repression which put an end to the strike and to any new soviet.

The soviets disappeared from the social scene until 1917. This disappearance surprises many comrades who ask how is it possible that the same workers who had participated with so much enthusiasm in the soviets of 1905 could have forgotten them? How do you understand why the "council" form, which had demonstrated its efficacy and its strength in 1905, disappeared as if by magic for just over a decade?

In order to answer this question, one cannot start off from the point of view of bourgeois democracy, a view that considers society as a sum of "free and sovereign" individuals, as "free" to set up councils as to participate in elections. If that were the case, how do you understand that millions of citizens who "had decided" to set up soviets in 1905 then "chose" to neglect this form of organisation for long years?

Such a point of view can't understand that that the working class is not a sum of "free and self-determined" individuals, but a class which can only express itself, act and organise when it affirms itself through its collective action in the struggle. This struggle is not the result of "individual decisions" but rather the dynamic product of a whole series of objective factors (the degradation of the conditions of existence and the general evolution of society), and of subjective factors (indignation, concern about the future, the experience of the struggle and the development of class consciousness animated by the intervention of revolutionaries). The action and organisation of the working class is a social, collective and historic process, which reveals an evolution in the balance of forces between the classes.

Further, this dynamic of class struggle must in its turn be put in the historic context that permits the birth of the soviets. During the historic period of capitalism's ascendency - and particularly during its "golden age" of 1873-1914 - the proletariat had been able to constitute great permanent mass organisations (particularly the trade unions) whose existence was one of the first conditions for undertaking successful struggles. In the historic period which opened at the beginning of the 20th century, that of the decadence of capitalism marked by the First World War, the general organisation of the working class was constructed in and through the struggle, disappearing with it if the latter was unable to go to the end, that's to say up to a revolutionary combat to destroy the bourgeois state.

In such conditions, the acquisitions of the struggles could no longer be reckoned in the manner of an accountant, as a sum of staggered gains consolidated year on year, nor by mass permanent organisation. These acquisitions were concretised by "abstract" gains (the evolution of consciousness, enrichment of the historic programme due to lessons from the struggle, perspectives for the future...) won in great moments of agitation which then disappear from the immediate understanding of the larger masses and retreat to the small world of minorities, thus giving the illusion of never having existed.

February 1917: the heat of the struggle gives rise to the soviets

Between 1905 and 1917, the soviets were thus reduced to no more than an "idea" orienting the reflection and also the political struggle of a handful of militants. The pragmatic method which only accords importance to what one can see and touch doesn't allow for the idea that the soviets contained an immense material power. In 1917, Trotsky wrote: "Without doubt the revolution's next new assault will bring in its wake everywhere the establishment of workers councils."[4] The great actors of the February revolution were effectively the soviets.

The revolutionary minorities, and more particularly the Bolsheviks after 1905, defended and propagated the idea of setting up soviets in order to push the struggle forward. These minorities kept alive the flame of the workers' councils in the collective memory of the working class. It was for this reason, with strikes breaking out in February, which rapidly took on great breadth, that there were numerous initiatives and appeals for the constitution of soviets. Anweiler underlines that "the idea took hold of re-establishing the soviet, both in the striking factories and among the revolutionary intelligentsia.  Eye-witnesses report that as early as February 24 spokesmen were elected in some factories to a projected soviet."[5] In other words, the idea of soviets, which for a long time had remained confined to some minorities, was largely taken in charge by the masses in struggle.

Secondly, the Bolshevik Party contributed significantly to the rise of the soviets. And it did so not by basing itself on a prior organisational schema of imposing a chain of intermediary organisations which would lead to the formation of soviets, but through a quite different contribution, as we will see, related to a hard political combat.

During the winter of 1915, when strikes began to break out above all in Petersburg, the liberal bourgeoisie contrived a plan to dragoon the workers into war production, proposing that in the factories a Workers' Group was elected within the committees of the war industry. The Mensheviks stood for this and, having obtained a large majority, tried to use the Workers' Group to put forward demands. They were proposing in fact, in the image of the unions in other European countries, to use a "workers' organisation" to sell the war effort.

The Bolsheviks opposed this proposal in October 1915 through the words of Lenin: "We oppose participation in war-industries commissions which further the imperialist, reactionary war"[6]. The Bolsheviks called for the election of strike committees and the Petersburg Party Committee proposed that "Representatives of factories and workshops, elected by proportional representation in all cities, should form an all-Russian soviet of workers' deputies".[7]

At first, the Mensheviks, with their electoral policy in favour of Workers' Groups, controlled the situation with an iron grip. The strikes of winter 1915 and the more numerous strikes of the second half of 1916 remained under the control of the Menshevik Workers' Groups but despite that, here and there, strike committees appeared. It was only in February that the seeds began to germinate.

The first attempt to set up a soviet took place during an improvised meeting held at the Tauride Palace on February 27. Those that participated were not representative; there were some elements of the Menshevik Party and the Workers' Group with some Bolshevik representatives and other independent elements. From this arose a very significant debate which put on the table two totally opposed options; the Mensheviks maintained that the meeting had to call itself the Provisional Soviet Committee; the Bolshevik Shliapnikov "opposed [this], arguing that this couldn't be done in the absence of representatives elected by the workers. He asked for their urgent convocation and the assembly agreed with him. It was decided to end the session and to launch summons to the main workers' concentrations and to the insurgent regiments."[8]

The proposal had dramatic effects. On the night of the 27th it began to spread to the workers' districts, the factories and the barracks. Workers and soldiers closely followed the development of events. The following day, numerous assemblies took place in the factories and barracks and, one after the other, they took the same decision; to set up a soviet and elect a delegate. In the afternoon the Tauride Palace was full from top to bottom with workers' and soldiers delegates. Sukhanov, in his Memoires,[9] describes the meeting that went on to make the historic decision to constitute the soviet: "when the session opened there were perhaps 250 deputies, but new groups endlessly entered the room."[10] He recalled how, when voting for the agenda, the session was interrupted by soldier's delegates who wanted to relay messages from the assemblies of their respective regiments. And one of them made the following summary: "The officers have disappeared. We no longer want to serve against the people, we are associating ourselves with our brother workers, all of us united to defend the cause of the people. We will give our lives for this cause. Our general assembly asked us to salute you". Sukhanov adds: "And with a voice full of emotion, in the middle of thunderous applause, the delegate added: Long Live the Revolution!"[11] The meeting, constantly interrupted by the arrival of new delegates who wanted to transmit the position of those that they represented, progressively confronted different questions: the formation of militias in the factories, protection against looting and the actions of Tsarist forces. One delegate proposed the creation of a "literary commission" to draw up an appeal addressed to the whole country, which was unanimously approved.[12] The arrival of a delegate from the Semionovski regiment - famous for its allegiance to the Tsar and its repressive role in 1905 - led to a new interruption. The delegate proclaimed: "Comrades and brothers, I bring to you salutations from all the men of the Semionovski regiment. Up to the last man, we have decided to join the people". This provoked "a current of enthusiasm which ran throughout the assembly" (Sukhanov). The assembly organised a "general staff of the insurrection" occupying all the strategic points of Petersburg.

The assembly of the soviet didn't take place in a void. The masses were mobilised. Sukhanov underlines the atmosphere  which surrounded the session: "The crowd was very compact; tens of thousands of men came there to salute the revolution. The rooms of the Palace could no longer contain so many men and, in front of the doors, the cordons of the Military Commission arrived in order to contain a more and more numerous crowd".[13]

March 1917: a gigantic network of soviets spreads throughout Russia

In 24 hours, the soviet was master of the situation. The triumph of the Petersburg insurrection provoked the extension of the revolution throughout the country: "The local workers and soldiers soviets throughout Russia were the backbone of the revolution."[14] How could such a gigantic extension happen that, in so little time, spread throughout the whole of the Russian territory? There were differences between the formation of the soviets in 1905 and in 1917. In 1905, the strikes broke out in January and successive waves of strikes unfolded without any massive organisation bar a few exceptions. The soviets were really constituted in October. In 1917 on the contrary, it was at the beginning of the struggle that the soviets were set up. The appeals of the Petersburg Soviet of February 28 fell on fertile soil. The impressive speed with which this soviet was set up was, by itself, indicative of the will to bring it into being that animated large layers of workers and soldiers.

Assemblies were held daily and didn't limit themselves to electing delegates to the soviet. It often happened that they were accompanied by a general assembly. Also and at the same time, workers' district soviets were set up. The soviet itself made such an appeal and, the same day, the workers of the combative Vyborg district, a proletarian area on the outskirts of Petersburg, took the lead in constituting a District Soviet and launched a very combative call for such soviets to be formed throughout the country. Workers in many other popular quarters followed their example in the ensuing days.

And in the same way factory assemblies constituted factory councils. The latter, although born out of the need for immediate demands and the organisation of work, didn't limit themselves to these aspects and became more and more politicised. Anweiler recognised that "In time the Petrograd factory committees achieved a solid organization that to some extent competed with the soviet of workers deputies. They united into borough councils and elected representatives to a central council, headed by an executive committee ... Because the committees represented the worker right at his place of work, their revolutionary role grew proportionately as the soviet consolidated into a permanent institution and lost touch with the masses."[15]

Thus, the formation of the soviets spread like wildfire. In Moscow "elections were held in the factories, and the soviet met for its first session, at which a three-man Executive Committee was elected. On the following day the workers soviet received its final form; ratios for representatives were set, deputies to the Petrograd soviet were elected, and formation of a new Provisional Government was approved." [16] "The revolution's triumphal march through Russia, leading in only a few days to collapse of the czarist government and its administrative machinery, was accompanied by a wave of revolutionary organisation among all levels of society, most strongly expressed in formation of soviets in al cities of the nation, from Finland to the pacific".[17]

Even if the soviets were concerned with local affairs, their main preoccupation was with general problems: the world war, economic chaos, the extension of the revolution to other countries, and they took measures to concretise these preoccupations. We should underline that the efforts to centralise the soviets came from "below" and not above. As we saw above, the Moscow Soviet decided to send delegates to Petersburg, considering it quite natural as it was the centre of the whole movement. Anweiler emphasises that "Workers and soldiers councils in other cities sent delegates to Petrograd or maintained permanent observers."[18] From mid-March, initiatives began to appear for a regional congress of soviets. In Moscow a conference of this nature took place on the 25th to the 27th with the participation of 70 workers' councils and 38 soldiers' councils. In the Donetz basin, there was a conference with the same characteristics which brought together 48 soviets. All these efforts culminated in the holding of a First All Russian Congress of Soviets which took place on the 29th March to the 3rd of April and regrouped delegates of 480 soviets.

The "organisational virus" spread to soldiers who, sick of war, deserted the battlefields, mutinied, expelled their officers and decided to return home. Contrary to 1905, where they practically never existed, soldiers' councils multiplied and proliferated in the regiments, armouries, naval bases and arsenals... The army was made up of a conglomeration of social classes, essentially peasants, the workers being a minority. Despite this heterogeneity, the majority of the soviets united around the proletariat. As the bourgeois historian and economist Tugan Baranovski noted: "it is not the army that has unleashed the insurrection, it's the workers. It wasn't the generals, but soldiers who went to the Duma of the Empire.[19] And the soldiers supported the workers, not at all to docilely comply with the injunctions of their officers, but... because they felt related by blood to the workers as a class of toilers like themselves."[20]

Soviet organisation progressively won ground, broadening out from May 1917 when the formation of peasant councils began to move these masses, for centuries used to being treated like beasts of burden. This was also a fundamental difference with 1905, where there were relatively few, mostly totally disorganised, uprisings. That all of Russia was covered by a gigantic network of councils is a historic fact of enormous significance. As Trotsky noted, "in all preceding revolutions, the workers, artisans and a certain number of students, fought on the barricades; some soldiers played their part; then, the well-to-do bourgeoisie, who had prudently observed events on the barricades through their windows, recovered power"[21], but this didn't happen this time. The masses stopped fighting "for the others" and fought for themselves through the councils. They applied themselves to all the business of economic, political, social and cultural life.

The worker masses were mobilised. The expression of this mobilisation was the soviets and, around them, a great network of soviet-type organisations (district councils, factory councils), a network that fed on itself and, in its turn, impulsed an impressive number of assemblies, meetings, debates and cultural activities that multiplied... Workers, soldiers, women and youth took up a feverish activity. They lived in a sort of permanent assembly. Work stopped to attend the factory assembly, the town or district soviet, gatherings, meetings and demonstrations. It's significant that after the strike of February, there were practically no strikes except at particular moments and in one-off or local situations. Contrary to a limited vision of the struggle, restricted to that of the strike, the absence of the latter did not mean a demobilisation. The workers were in permanent struggle, but the class struggle, as Engels said, constitutes a unity formed by the economic, political and ideological struggle. And the worker masses were involved in simultaneously taking on these three dimensions of their combat. With massive actions, demonstrations, gatherings, debates, the circulation of books and papers... the worker masses of Russia had taken their own destiny in hand and found in themselves inexhaustible reserves of thought, initiative, and research, all being addressed tirelessly in collective forums.

April 1917: the combat for "all power to the soviets"

"The Soviet took possession of all the post offices and telegraphs, the radio, all the stations, printers, so that without its authorisation it was impossible to send a telegram, leave Petersburg or publish a manifesto" were the words in his Memoires of a Cadet Party deputy.[22] However, as Trotsky noted, a terrible paradox existed since February: the power of the soviets had been entrusted by the majority (Menshevik and Social Revolutionary) to the bourgeoisie, practically obliging it to create the provisional government,[23] presided over by a Tsarist prince and made up of rich industrialists, cadets, and, to top it all, the "socialist" Kerensky.[24] The provisional government, hiding behind the soviets, pursued its policy of war and showed little concern for finding any solution to the serious problems that the workers and peasants were posing. This led the soviets to become ineffective and to disappear, as one can surmise from these declarations of leading Social Revolutionaries: "From their beginning the soviets did not...want to replace an all-Russian constituent assembly... On the contrary, leading the country toward a constituent assembly was their primary purpose... The soviets represent neither a state power paralleling the constituent assembly, nor one aligned with the Provisional Government. They are advisers to the people in the struggle for their interests...and they know that they represent only part of the country and are trusted only by the masses for whom they fight.  Therefore the soviets have always refused to pre-empt power and form a government."[25]

At the beginning of March, a sector of the working class was however becoming conscious of the fact that the soviets were tending to act as a screen for, and an instrument of, the policies of the bourgeoisie. There were also very animated debates in some soviets, factory and district committees on the "question of power". The Bolshevik minority were then lagging behind, its Central Committee[26] having just adopted a resolution of support critical of the provisional government, despite strong opposition from different sections of the party.[27]

The debate redoubled in intensity in March. "The Vyborg Committee called a meeting of thousands of workers and soldiers who, almost unanimously, adopted a resolution on the necessity for the Soviet to take power (...) The Vyborg resolution, by virtue of its success, was printed and displayed through posters. But the Petrograd Committee formally prohibited this resolution..."[28]

The arrival of Lenin in April radically transformed the situation. Lenin, who had followed with concern, since his exile in Switzerland, the little information on the shameful attitude of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party, was reaching the same conclusions as the Vyborg Committee. In his April Theses he expressed it clearly: "The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution, which - owing to the insufficient class consciousness and organisation of the proletariat, placed power in the hands of the bourgeoisie - to its second stage, which must place power in the hands of the proletariat and the poorest sections of the peasants."[29] Many writers do not see in this decisive intervention of Lenin an expression of the role of the avant-garde of the revolutionary party and its most remarkable militants but, on the contrary, consider it an act of political opportunism. According to them, Lenin grasped the opportunity to use the soviets as a platform for conquering "absolute power", shedding his "strict Jacobin" clothes in order to put on those of an anarchist partisan of the "direct power of the masses". In fact, an old party member let fly that: "For many years, the place of Bakunin in the Russian revolution has been unoccupied; now it's taken by Lenin."[30] This legend is completely false. The confidence that Lenin had in the soviets in fact went very far back, to the lessons he drew from the 1905 revolution. In a draft resolution he proposed to the 4th Party Congress in 1906, he said that: "insofar as the soviets represent cells of revolutionary power, their strength and significance depend entirely on the vigour and success of the insurrection", and he added that "Such institutions are inevitably doomed to failure if they do not base themselves on the revolutionary army and overthrow the government powers (that is, transform them into a provisional revolutionary government."[31] In 1915, he returned to the same idea: "Soviets of workers deputies and similar institutions may be considered instruments of the insurrection and of revolutionary power. These institutions can be of definite usefulness only in spreading the political mass strike and an insurrection, depending on the degree of preparation, development, and progress."[32]

June - July 1917: the crisis of the soviets

Lenin was conscious however that the battle had only just begun: "It is only in fighting against this unconscious trust of the masses (a struggle which can only and must be made with the ideological arms of friendly persuasion, by referring to living experience) that we will really be able to rid ourselves of the present outbursts of revolutionary phrases, and really impulse the consciousness of the proletariat as well as that of the masses' local initiative, audacity and resolution."[33]

This would be bitterly verified at the time of the First Congress of All-Russian Soviets. Convoked in order to unify and centralise the network of different types of soviets spread out over the territory, its resolutions not only went against the revolution but led towards the destruction of the soviets. In June and July, a serious political problem appeared: the crisis of the soviets and their estrangement from the masses.

The general situation was marked by total disorder: a rise in unemployment, paralysis of transport, crop failures in the countryside and general rationing. Desertions multiplied in the army along with attempts to fraternise with the enemy on the front. The imperialist camp of the Entente (France, Britain and latterly the United States) pressurised the Provisional Government to launch a general offensive against the German front. The Menshevik and SR delegates, happy to oblige, adopted a resolution at the Congress of Soviets supporting the military offensive, whereas an important minority, regrouping not just the Bolsheviks, was against. To crown it all, the Congress rejected a proposal to limit the working day to 8 hours and had no interest in the agrarian problem. From the voice of the masses, it became the spokesman for what they hated above all, the continuation of imperialist war.

The circulation of Congress resolutions - and, in particular those supporting the military offensive - provoked a profound disappointment in the masses. They saw that their organisation was slipping between their fingers and they began to react. The district soviets of Petersburg, the soviet of the neighbouring town of Kronstadt and various factory councils and committees of several regiments proposed a great demonstration for June 10 whose objective would be to bring pressure on the Congress so that it changed its policy and oriented itself towards the taking of power, expelling the capitalist ministers.

The response of the Congress was to temporarily forbid the demonstrations under the pretext of the "danger of a monarchist plot". Delegates of the Congress were mobilised to move around the factories and regiments in order to "convince" the workers and soldiers. The evidence of a Menshevik delegate is eloquent: "Throughout the night, the majority of the Congress, more than five hundred of its members, stayed awake and went to factories, workshops and the Petrograd barracks, urging men not to go on the demonstration. In a good number of workshops and factories, and also in some parts of the garrison, the Congress had no authority... The Congress delegates were very often welcomed in a strongly unfriendly manner, sometimes with hostility and were frequently, angrily, shown the door".[34]

The leadership of the bourgeoisie had understood the need to save its main card - the confiscation of the soviets - to use against the first serious attempt of the masses to recuperate them. This it did, with its congenital Machiavellism, by utilising the Bolsheviks as a test of strength, launching a furious campaign against them. At the Congress of Cossacks which took place at the same time as the Congress of Soviets, Miliukov proclaimed that "the Bolsheviks were the worst enemies of the Russian revolution... It is time to finish with these gentlemen."[35] The Cossack congress decided "to support the threatened soviets. We Cossacks will never quarrel with the soviets."[36] As Trotsky underlined, "against the Bolsheviks, the reactionaries were even ready to march with the soviet in order to put it down much more quietly afterwards."[37] The Menshevik Liber clearly showed the objective in declaring to the Congress of Soviets: "If you want for yourselves the masses that are turning towards the Bolsheviks, break with Bolshevism."

The violent bourgeois counter-offensive against the masses was made in a situation where, on the whole, they were still politically weak. The Bolsheviks understood this and proposed the cancellation of the June 10 demonstration, which was only reluctantly accepted by some regiments and the most combative factories.

When this news reached the Congress of Soviets, a delegate proposed that a "really soviet" demonstration be convoked for the 18th of June. Miliukov analysed this initiative thus: "Following some speeches with a liberal tone at the Congress of Soviets, having succeed in preventing the armed demonstration on June 10...the socialist ministers felt that they went too far in their rapprochement with us, that the ground shifted under their feet. Alarmed, they abruptly turned towards the Bolsheviks". Trotsky rightly corrected this: "Understand that it's not a question of a turn towards the Bolsheviks, but of something quite different, an attempt to turn towards the masses, against the Bolsheviks."[38]

This was a bitter setback for the bourgeois-dominated Congress of Soviets. Workers and soldiers participated massively in the June 18 demonstration, brandishing banners calling for "all power to the soviets", the dismissal of the capitalist ministers, the end of the war, appeals for international solidarity. The demonstrations took up the orientations of the Bolsheviks and demanded the opposite of what the Congress asked for.

The situation got worse. Pressed by its allies in the Entente, the Russian bourgeoisie was in an impasse. The famous military offensive turned out to be a fiasco, the workers and soldiers wanted a radical change of the policy of the soviets. But the situation wasn't so clear in the provinces and the countryside where, despite a certain radicalisation, the great majority remained faithful to the SRs and to the Provisional Government.

The moment was approaching for the bourgeoisie to try to lay an ambush for the masses in Petersburg by provoking a premature confrontation which would allow it to deliver a sudden blow to the avant-garde of the movement and thus open the door to the counter-revolution.

The forces of the bourgeoisie reorganised. "Officers' soviets" were set up whose task was to organise elite forces in order to militarily wipe out the revolution. Encouraged by the western democracies, the Tsarist black gangs raised their heads. According to the words of Lenin, the old Duma functioned as a counter-revolutionary office without the social-democratic traitor leaders posing the least obstacle to it.

A series of subtle provocations were programmed in order to drive the workers of Petersburg into the trap of a premature insurrection. First of all the Cadet Party withdrew its ministers from the Provisional Government so that the latter was only composed of "socialists". This was a sort of invitation to the workers to demand the immediate taking of power and launch themselves into insurrection. The Entente then gave a real ultimatum to the Provisional Government: choose between the soviets or a constitutional government. Finally, the most violent provocation was the threat to remove the most combative regiments from the capital and send them to the front.

Important numbers of workers and soldiers in Petersburg took the bait. From numerous district, factory and regimental soviets, an armed demonstration was called for July 4. Its slogan was that the soviets take power. This initiative showed that the workers had understood that there was no outcome other than revolution. But, at the same time, they were demanding that power was assumed by the soviets as they were then constituted, that is to say with the majority in the hands of the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries whose concern was to subordinate the soviets to the bourgeoisie. The subsequently celebrated scene, where a worker addressed a Menshevik soviet member, "why don't you take power once and for all?" is significant of the persisting illusions within the working class. This was like inviting the wolf into the sheep-pen! The Bolsheviks warned against the trap that was being laid. They did not do so with complacency, from high on a pedestal, telling the masses on which points they were mistaken. They put themselves at the head of the demonstration, shoulder to shoulder with the workers and soldiers in order to contribute all their forces so that the response was massive but didn't slide towards  a decisive confrontation whose defeat was written in advance.[39] The demonstration ended in good order and did not launch a revolutionary assault. A massacre was avoided, which was a victory for the masses for the future. But the bourgeoisie couldn't retreat; it had to continue its offensive. The Provisional Government entirely made up of "worker" ministers then unleashed a brutal repression aimed particularly against the Bolsheviks. The party was declared illegal, numerous militants were imprisoned, its entire press was forbidden and Lenin had to go into clandestinity.

Through a difficult but heroic effort, the Bolshevik Party contributed decisively to avoiding the masses' defeat, dispersion and rout that was threatened by their disorganisation. The Petersburg Soviet, by contrast, supporting the elected Executive Committee at the recent Congress of Soviets, reached the depths of ignominy by endorsing the unleashing of a brutal repression and reaction.

How was the bourgeoisie able to derail the soviets?

The organisation of the masses in workers' councils from February 1917 created the opportunity to develop their strength, organisation and consciousness for the final assault against the power of the bourgeoisie. The period which followed, the so-called period of dual power between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, constituted a critical stage for the two antagonistic classes, which could lead, for one or the other, to a political and military victory over the enemy class.

Throughout this period, the level of consciousness in the masses, which was still weak relative to the need for proletarian revolution, constituted a breach that the bourgeoisie had to try to fill in order to abort the emerging revolutionary process. For this it used a weapon as dangerous as it was pernicious, the sabotage from within exercised by bourgeois forces behind a "radical" " workers'" mask. This Trojan Horse of the counter-revolution was at this time in Russia constituted by the Menshevik and SR "socialist" parties.

At the beginning, many workers entertained illusions in the Provisional Government and saw it as a product of the soviets, whereas in reality it was their worst enemy. As for the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, they enjoyed a certain trust among the great mass of workers who they had  deceived with their radical speeches, their revolutionary phraseology, which allowed them to politically dominate the great majority of the soviets. It was from this position of strength that that they strove to empty these organs of their revolutionary content in order to place them at the service of the bourgeoisie. If they failed in this attempt it was because the permanently mobilised masses, through their own experience, led them with the support of the Bolshevik Party, to unmask the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries, to the point that the latter were led to assume the orientation of the Provisional Government on such fundamental questions as war and the conditions of life.

In the next article, we will see how, from the end of August 1917, the soviets were able to regenerate themselves and really become launch-pads for taking power, culminating in the victory of the October revolution.

C.Mir, March 8 2010


[1]. Cf. International Review n°. 140.

[2]. We now have lots of material and much more detail on how the Russian revolution developed, and also on the decisive role played by the Bolshevik Party. In particular, Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, Ten Days That Shook the World by John Reed, our pamphlets on the Russian revolution as well as numerous articles in our International Review, cf. n°s. 71, 72, 89 to 91.

[3]. Oskar Anweiler, The Soviets: The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1921, Pantheon, 1974. Very anti-Bolshevik, the author could nevertheless narrate the facts faithfully, and with impartiality recognize the contribution of the Bolsheviks, which contrasts with sectarian and dogmatic judgments delivered from time to time.

[4]. Quoted by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.90.

[5]. Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.104.

[6]. Ibid., p.99.

[7]. Ibid., p.100.

[8]. Gérard Walter, Overview of the Russian revolution.

[9]. Published in seven volumes in 1922, they give the perspective of an independent socialist, a collaborator of Gorki and Martov's Menshevik internationalists. Even though he disagreed with the Bolsheviks, he supported the October revolution. This and the following quotes are extracted and translated from a summary of his Memoires, published in Spanish.

[10]. According to Anweiler, there were around 1,000 delegates at the end of the session and up to 3,000 by the next one.

[11]. Sukhanov, Op. Cit., p.54.

[12]. This commission proposed the permanent edition of a soviet paper: Izvestia (The News), which appeared regularly from then on.

[13]. Sukhanov, Op. Cit., p.56

[14]. Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.116.

[15]. Ibid., pp.125-6.

[16]. Ibid., pp.113-4.

[17]. Ibid., p.113. This quote differs slightly from that in the French version of this article.

[18]. Ibid., p.122.

[19]. Chamber of Deputies.

[20]. Quoted by Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Constitutional Democratic Party (KD) of the big bourgeoisie, hastily formed in 1905. Its leader was Miliukov, eminence grise of the Russian bourgeoisie at that time.

[23]. Trotsky tells how the bourgeoisie was paralysed and how the Menshevik chiefs used their influence in the soviets to reserve for themselves unconditional power, of which Miliukov "made no bones about showing his satisfaction and agreeable surprise" (Memoires of Sukhanov, a Menshevik very close to events within the provisional government).

[24]. This lawyer, very popular in workers' circles before the revolution, ended up being appointed head of the provisional government and then led various attempts to finish off the workers. His intentions are revealed in the memoires of the British ambassador at the time: "Kerensky urged me to have patience, assuring me that the soviets would end up dying a natural death. They would soon give up their functions to the democratic organs of autonomous administration."

[25]. Cited by Anweiler Op. Cit., p.142..

[26]. Composed of Stalin, Kamenev and Molotov. Lenin was in exile in Switzerland and had no practical means of  contacting the party.

[27]. During the Petrograd Party Committee meeting on March 5th, the draft resolution presented by Shliapnikov was rejected. It said: "The task now is development of a provisional revolutionary government through federation of local soviets. For conquest of the central power it is secure  the power of the workers and soldiers deputies" (Cited by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.147).

[28]. Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[29]. We can't discuss here  the content of these Theses,  extremely interesting though they are. Cf. International Review n°. 89, "The April Theses: Signpost to the Proletarian Revolution".

[30].  Cited by Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[31].  Cited by Anweiler, Op. Cit., p.82.

[32].  Ibid., p.85.

[33].  Lenin, Selected Works. 

[34].  Cited by Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[35]. That the head of the bourgeoisie in Russia could talk in the name of the revolution reveals all the cynicism typical of this class!

[36]. These regiments were characterised by their obedience to the Tsar and to established order. They were the last to go over to the revolution.

[37].  Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[38]. All the quotes are extracts from Trotsky, Op. Cit.

[39],  See our article on "The July days and the indispensable role of the party", International Review n°. 90. We refer our readers to this article for a more detailed analysis of this event.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 

International Review no.142 - 3rd Quarter 2010

Capitalism has reached a dead-end; neither austerity packages nor recovery plans can change anything

"The G20 in search of a new way of governing the world". This was the ambitious title given to an article in Le Monde (26 June 2010) on the latest summit of the world's "great". An ambition in keeping with the catastrophic state of the planet!

An improvement in the situation is no doubt the subject of ardent hopes. But over the past two years, attacks on workers' living standards have been speeding up all over the world. Despite all the announcements about an economic recovery, the world economy is stagnating and its future looks increasingly sombre. In the face of all this, a meeting of the leaders in charge of running this world economy, the people who hold the fate of the planet's inhabitants in their hands, was obliged to discuss ways of making things better.

The meeting of the G8 which preceded this G20 had to agree on the policies to follow to take the world economy out of the crisis: carrying on with recovery plans as the US recommends and is doing, or imposing austerity plans to deal with the threat of bankruptcy looming over a growing number of states, as the most important countries of the European Union recommend and are doing. The G20 had to look at taxing the banks in order to build up a fund for resolving financial crises - the crisis of 2007 has not been resolved even if its most devastating effects have for the moment been held in check; at the same time, it had to agree on ways of regulating the financial system in order to avoid the most destabilising forms of speculation and to guide the financial resources liberated as a result towards developing production. What came out of this summit? Nothing. The mountain didn't even give rise to a mole hill. No decision was taken about any of the problems; as we will see in more detail later on, the participants could do no more than register their complete disagreement: "On the subjects which made up the bulk of this G20, the participants at the summit judged that the most urgent thing was to wait. The divergences were too great and so was the lack of preparation".[1] President Sarkozy of France did his best to play down this demonstration of powerlessness by the world bourgeoisie, commenting that "you can't take historic decisions at every summit"!

The previous G20s had promised to introduce reforms based on the lessons of the "subprime" affair and the financial crisis that followed. This time, there weren't even any promises. Why did the grand managers of world capitalism prove so incapable of taking the least decision? The root of the problem is that there is no solution to the crisis of capitalism other than the overthrow of this historically senile mode of production. There is also another, more circumstantial explanation: since the heads of state are aware that the world economy is sinking into a very deep hole, they are wise enough to avoid having to repeat the famous phrase of the former president of the Ivory Coast, F Houphouët Boigny: "We were at the edge of a precipice but we have taken a big step forward".[2] This time round, no one would be laughing.

The end of recovery plans and the return of the depression

The outbreak of the financial crisis in 2008 brought with it a fall in production in the major countries of the world (with a slow-down for China and India). To try to deal with this situation, the bourgeoisie in most countries was obliged to bring in recovery plans, the ones in China and the USA being by far the most significant. While these plans did permit a partial revival of global economic activity and a certain degree of stabilisation in the developed countries, their effects on demand, production and trade are now wearing off.

Despite all the propaganda about the so-called recovery, the bourgeoisie is now forced to admit that this is not how things have turned out. In the USA, growth was expected to reach 3.5% in 2010 but has been revised downwards to 2.7%; unemployment figures have grown week by week and the American economy has started destroying jobs;[3] in general, a number of indicators created to measure economic activity in the US show that growth is tending to weaken. In the euro zone, growth was a mere 0.1% in the first quarter of 2010 and the European Central Bank predicts that the total for the year will be no more than 1%. Bad news keeps on coming: growth in manufacturing is less and less strong and unemployment is again on the rise, with the exception of Germany. It is predicted that the GNP of Spain will continue to diminish in 2010 (-0.3%). It is significant that, both in the USA and Europe, investments keep falling, which means that enterprises are not envisaging any real growth in production.

Above all, Asia, the region of the world that was supposed to become the new centre of gravity of the world economy, is now seeing its activity slowing down. In China, the Conference Board index, which was predicted to rise by 1.7% in April, only went up by 0.3%; this figure is corroborated by all of those which have been published recently. While the monthly figures published about a given country are not necessarily indicative of a general tendency, the fact that, in the major countries of the region, economic activity has taken the same turn at the same moment does signify something serious; thus, the index of economic activity in India shows a slow-down and, in Japan, the figures for industrial production and household consumption for the month of May are falling.

Finally, confirming this trend, which gives the lie to all the media fanfares about the recovery, the "Baltic Dry Index", which measures the evolution of world trade, is also heading downwards.

The bankruptcy of states

While the evolution of different forms of economic activity testifies to a descent into depression, entire nation states are experiencing growing difficulty in repaying their debts. This can't fail to recall the sub-prime crisis which saw numerous American households unable to pay back the loans granted to them. A few months ago, it was the turn of the Greek state to be in the hot seat, and it was widely suspected that the state of its finances was much worse than had initially been announced. At the same time, the solvency of several other European states (gracefully given the acronym of PIIGS), Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Spain as well as Greece, was called into question by the debt-rating agencies. No doubt speculation on these economies worsened their difficulties, and the role played by these agencies (which were created by the big banks) is far from clear. It remains the case that what is basically at issue in the crisis of confidence affecting these countries is the scale of their budget deficits, which have reached levels unequalled since the Second World War, and of their public debt. The recovery plans put in place by the different states have made little impact on the situation. In fact they have led to a fall in the currency reserves of the different public treasuries, and consequently to increasing difficulties for the states concerned in repaying the interest on the loans extended to them. Now, the payment of the interest on their debts is the minimum condition for the great world banking organisms to continue loaning to them. But the PIIGS are not the only ones to see a very strong increase in their public deficits and thus in public debt. The debt-rating agencies have expressly insisted that Britain reduce its debt and warned that it will have to join the ranks of the PIIGS if it doesn't make a major effort to reduce its public deficit. We should add for good measure that Japan (which, in the 1990s was predicted to supplant the USA as the world's leading economy) has reached a public debt that corresponds to twice its GNP.[4] This list, which could easily be lengthened, leads us to the conclusion that the tendency of states to default on sovereign debt is a global one, because all states are being hit by the aggravation of the debt crisis since 2007, and all of them have suffered imbalances comparable to those of Greece and Portugal.

But it's not just states whose financial situation is nearing insolvency. The banking system is also in an increasingly grave situation, for the following reasons:

  • all the specialists know and are saying that the banks have not been purified of the "toxic" products which resulted in the bankruptcy of numerous financial institutions at the end of 2008;
  • the banks, faced with these difficulties, have still not stopped speculating on the world's financial markets by buying some very risky products. On the contrary, they have carried on playing the same game to try to make up for the massive losses they have incurred;
  • the aggravation of the crisis since the end of 2007 has forced a number of companies to go bust, so that many households, hit by unemployment, can no longer, in contrast to previous years, repay the various loans they were given.

An illustration of this situation was provided recently, on 22 May, when a savings company in Spain called Caja Sur was placed under state control. But this event was just the tip of the iceberg as regards the difficulties facing banks in the last few months. Other banks in Europe have been downgraded by the debt-rating agencies (Caja Madrid in Spain, BNP in France); but above all, the European Central Bank has informed the financial world that the European banks will have to depreciate their shares by 195 billion euros in the next two years, and that their need for capital up until 2012 has risen to 800 billion euros. On another level, a recent event has been a striking verification of the present fragility of the banking system: the German company Siemens has decided to create its own bank, an institution which will be in its service and in the service of its clients. The reason for this is simple: having already lost the mere bagatelle of 140 billion euros at the time of the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the company is afraid of a repeat phenomenon with the liquidities it has passed through the tills of the "classical" banks. And we have also learned that Siemens has not invented anything new here, since the Veolia company, which is allied with British American Tobacco and other less important enterprises, did the same thing in January 2010.[5] It's clear that, if companies whose solidity is not in question for the time being are no longer putting their funds in the vaults of the big banks, the situation of the latter is not going to get any better!

But what is particularly important to underline is that problems connected to the insolvency of states and banks can only pile up more and more: this is already the case, but it's going to increase considerably in the weeks and months ahead. It's now clear that if a state goes bust and is not rescued by other states, as has been the case with Greece, this will result in the collapse of the banks which have given it massive loans. The credit doled out by German and French banks to the states belonging to the PIIGS group amounts to something like 1000 billion euros, so it is evident that if these countries default on their repayments this will have incalculable consequences on France and Germany, and thus for the world economy.

Today, it's Spain that is in the eye of the world financial storm. The European Central Bank has announced that Spanish banks that are not creditworthy enough to borrow on the money markets will be refinanced to the tune of 85.6 billion euros, just for the month of May. Moreover it is being said in the stock markets that the Spanish state has got to come up with a considerable sum by the end of July or the beginning of August.[6] Such sums have thus got to be found pretty soon and it's because the situation is so dramatic that the director of the IMF, D Strauss-Kahn, and the joint Secretary of State for the Treasury, C Collins, have both been to Madrid. A plan for salvaging Spain's sovereign debt, involving between 200 and 250 billion euros, is under review.

If there is such a strong focus on Spain at the moment, it's because the problems posed by the financial situation there could have very serious consequences:

  • if Spain is not propped up and it goes bust, this would lead to a general discrediting of the euro and a loss of confidence in all payments in this currency; in other words, the euro zone as a whole will be in trouble;
  • France and Germany, i.e. the strongest economies in the euro zone, would be unable to take up the slack if Spain defaults, and this would result in the destabilisation of their finances and, in the end, of their whole economy (see the analysis developed by the economist P Artus in Le Monde, 16 April 2010).

This means that any aid to the Spanish state to help it avoiding a default on its payments could only be the fruit of an agreement by all the western countries, and the price for this would be to make their own financial situation even more fragile than it is already. And given that, as we have seen, the majority of states are in a situation close to that of Spain, they would also have to come up with policies aimed at preventing them from becoming incapable of repaying a cascading sovereign debt. 

From all this it follows that capitalism no longer has the means to reverse the aggravation of the crisis that we have seen since 2007.

States differ on what policy to adopt

"Rigour or recovery: the persistent disagreement of the G8 leaders" was a headline in Le Monde's 27-28 June edition. Despite the diplomatic language used, it emerged clearly that the disagreement between the different countries was very deep. Rigour was called for by Britain and Germany, with the euro zone in its wake; recovery was wanted by the USA and to a lesser extent by China. What are the reasons behind this disagreement?

Recognising the grave implications for Europe and the world of the bankruptcy of the Greek state, the EU and the IMF finally organised the salvage of Greece's sovereign debt, despite the disagreements between the states taking part in the salvage operation. But this event resulted in a major hardening of attitudes among the countries of the euro zone:

  • first, all finally agreed on the necessity to take steps to shore up states in dire need, since any defaulting on payments would shake the whole European financial system, risking its complete collapse. This is why a 750 billion support fund was set up, two thirds of it supplied by the countries of the euro zone and one third by the IMF, which has the job of making sure that states in default of payments are able to meet their obligations. Similarly, given the situation of the banks in the euro zone, the European Central Bank agreed to take on the more or less dubious debts owed by the banks. This is what we have just seen with the Spanish banks.
  • Secondly, to reduce the risk of defaulting on payments, the states decided to sanitise their own public finances and their own banking systems. To do this they launched austerity plans which mean bringing down working class living standards to a degree comparable to what happened in the 1930s. The number of attacks is so great that just enumerating them would be beyond the scope of this article. Let's just take some significant examples. In Spain, civil servants' wages were cut by 5% and 13,000 jobs were eliminated. In Germany, 14,000 public sector jobs will be cut between now and 2014, and payments to the long term unemployed will be reduced. In all countries public spending will be decreased.

The logic claimed for these measures is this: while we must save the financial system through support to banks in difficulty and states that risk defaulting on their payments, it is necessary to make public finances more healthy in order to be able to borrow again later on and thus launch a new phase of growth. In fact, behind the declared objective, there is first of all the determination of the German bourgeoisie to preserve its economic interests; for this national capital, which has staked so much on being able to sell its commodities - especially its machine-tools and its chemical products - to the rest of the world, it is out of the question to bear the costs of a recovery or of helping other ailing European states by raising its own production costs. This would mean its commodities becoming less competitive. And since this is the only country capable of supporting other European countries, it is imposing a policy of austerity on all of them, even if that doesn't correspond to their interests.

The fact that Britain, which does not suffer from the constraints of the euro zone, is bringing in the same policy, is a significant expression of the depth of the crisis. For the UK, it's not time to boost a recovery since its budget deficit for 2010 has reached 11.5% of GNP. The risk of defaulting on sovereign debt is too great - it would result in the collapse of sterling. We should also note that Japan - given the size of its public debt - has adopted the same austerity policy. More and more countries are thinking that their deficits and public debt have become too dangerous, that defaulting on payment of sovereign debt would mean a considerable weakening of the national capital. They are thus opting for an austerity policy that can only lead to deflation.[7]

Now it's this deflationary dynamic which is so much feared by the US. They are accusing the Europeans of getting themselves into a "Hoover episode" (after the US President during the first part of the Depression in the 30s), which amounts to accusing the European states of pulling the world into a depression and a deflation as in 1929-32. According to the Americans, even if it is legitimate to want to reduce public deficits, this should be done later, when the "recovery" is really underway. By defending this position, the US is standing up for its own interests, since, as the holder of the world's reserve currency, creating extra currency to feed the recovery only costs them the price of the printing. However, this doesn't mean that they don't have a real fear of seeing the world economy lurching into a deflationary course. 

In the end, whatever options are taken up, the policy changes carried out recently as well as the fears expressed by the various factions of the world bourgeoisie reveal the disarray in their ranks: there are no longer any good solutions! 

What perspectives?

The effects of the recovery plans are over and a new plunge into depression is underway. This will mean that companies will have growing difficulties in making adequate profits and many of them will go under. The austerity packages which a large number of countries are putting in place can only accelerate the fall into depression and will engender a process of deflation, some signs of which are already appearing.

There can be no doubt that the hope that austerity policies will restore health to public finances and pave the way for future borrowing is a pure illusion. According to the IMF's calculations, the consequences of Greece's austerity plan will be a loss of 8% of its GNP. A fall in Spain's GNP is already predicted. Furthermore, austerity plans will lead to a fall in fiscal returns and this will serve to further widen the very deficits that the austerity plans are supposed to reduce! We can expect a fall in production in most countries of the world, and of world trade, by the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, with all the consequences this will have for the development of poverty and the degradation of working class living standards.

It's not impossible that, given the danger that austerity policies will only speed up the depression, a change of policy will come about after a few months, and the position advocated by the USA will be adopted. The last six months have shown us how incapable the bourgeoisie is of seeing beyond the very short term, since it has so little margin for manoeuvre: only one year ago everyone was in favour of recovery plans! If a new policy of revival is adopted, it will mean resorting to the printing press in a big way (some say that the US is already getting ready to do this). But then we will see a general fall in the value of currencies, i.e. an explosion of inflation, and that will also mean new and dramatic attacks on workers' living standards.

Vitaz 3.7.10

[1]Le Monde, 29 June 2010.


[3]. After 5 consecutive months in which jobs were being created, 125,000 on were destroyed in June, which is more than the analysts feared. See the article "Après cinq mois de créations d'emplois, les États-Unis se remettent à en détruire" (

[4]. Among other things, the fact that Japan currently holds the second largest currency reserves in the world allows it to be marked  less severely by the debt-rating agencies than many countries who are actually less deeply in debt


[6]. We are talking about 280 billion euros. Of course, because of their origin (the stock markets) such figures are disputable and have obviously been denied by the authorities, since in such circumstances, silence would be taken as a confirmation and could lead to all kinds of panic.

[7]. This means a long term fall in prices, brought about in this case by a lack of demand, itself the consequence of austerity programmes. 


What are workers' councils? (Part 3): The revolution of 1917 (July to October)

In the series "What are workers' councils?" we want to answer the question by analysing the historical experience of the proletariat. It isn't a case of putting the soviets forward as a perfect model for others to copy; we want to understand both their mistakes as well as their achievements, so that current and future generations will be armed with this knowledge.

In the first article we saw how they emerged in the revolution of 1905 in Russia.[1] In the second we saw how they were the centrepiece of the revolution of February 1917 and how they entered a deep crisis in June-July 1917 until being taken hostage by the bourgeois counter-revolution.[2]

In this third article we will see how they were recaptured by the mass of workers and soldiers who would then seize power in October 1917.

After the defeat of July, the bourgeoisie is intent on destroying the soviets

The process of evolution, both in nature and in human society, is never linear. Its course is full of contradictions, convulsions, dramatic setbacks, retreats and advances. This analysis can readily be applied to the struggle of the proletariat, a class that by definition is excluded from the ownership of the means of production and has no economic power. Its struggle is one of convulsions and contradictions, with retreats, with what seem like permanent acquisitions appearing to be lost, with long periods of apathy and despondency.

Following the February Revolution, the workers and soldiers seemed to skip from one victory to another. Bolshevism became more influential; the masses - especially in the region around Petrograd - were moving in the direction of revolution. It was like a fruit ripening.

However, in July there were moments of crisis and hesitancy that are typical of the proletarian struggle. "A direct defeat was experienced by the workers and soldiers of Petrograd, who in their urge forward had come up against the confusedness and contradictions of their own aims, on the one hand, and, on the other, the backwardness of the provinces and the front."[3]

The bourgeoisie seized the opportunity to launch a furious offensive: the Bolsheviks were vilified as German agents[4] and arrested en masse; paramilitary gangs were organised who attacked them in the street, imposed boycotts of their meetings, wrecked their premises and print shops. The fearsome Tsarist Black Hundreds, the monarchist circles, the government bodies regained the upper hand. The bourgeoisie - with the backing of British and French diplomats - was aiming to destroy the soviets and to impose a ferocious dictatorship.[5]

The revolution that began in February reached a point where the spectre of defeat became ever more likely: "Many thought that the revolution in general had exhausted itself. The February Revolution had indeed exhausted itself to the bottom. This inner crisis in the mass consciousness, combining with the slanders and measures of repression, caused confusion and retreat - in some cases panic. The enemy grew bolder. In the masses themselves all the backward and dubious elements rose to the surface, those impatient of disturbances and deprivations."[6]

The Bolsheviks inspire the response of the masses

However, at this difficult time, the Bolsheviks proved to be an essential bastion of the proletarian forces. Pursued, slandered, shaken by violent debates in their own ranks and the resignation of many militants, they did not weaken or fall into disarray. They concentrated their efforts on drawing the lessons of the defeat and in particular the key lesson: how had the soviets been taken hostage by the bourgeoisie and their existence threatened?

From February to July there was a situation of dual power: The soviets were on the one side and on the other was the power of the bourgeois state, which had not been destroyed and still had enough in reserve to make a full recovery. The events of July had destroyed the impossible equilibrium that existed between soviets and state power:

"The General Staff and the military leaders, with the deliberate or semi-deliberate assistance of Kerensky, whom even the most prominent Socialist-Revolutionaries now call a Cavaignac,[7] have seized actual state power and have proceeded to shoot down revolutionary units at the front, disarm the revolutionary troops and workers in Petrograd and Moscow, suppress unrest in Nizhni-Novgorod, arrest Bolsheviks and ban their papers, not only without trial, but even without a government order. [...] The true meaning of the policy of military dictatorship, which now reigns supreme and is supported by the Cadets and monarchists, is preparations for disbanding the Soviets."[8]

Lenin also showed how the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries "have completely betrayed the cause of the revolution by putting it in the hands of the counter-revolutionaries and by turning themselves, their parties and the Soviets into mere fig-leaves of the counter-revolution."[9]

Under such conditions, "All hopes for a peaceful development of the Russian revolution have vanished for good. This is the objective situation: either complete victory for the military dictatorship, or victory for the workers' armed uprising [...] The slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets!' was a slogan for peaceful development of the revolution which was possible in April, May, June, and up to July 5."[10]

In his book The Soviets, Anweiler[11] uses this analysis to try to show that "This was the first barely veiled proclamation that the Bolsheviks aimed to win sole power. Lenin aimed to take power for his party with or against the soviets. [...] Plainly to him the soviets were only pawns and had no intrinsic value as a superior democratic form of government."[12]

Here is the now famous and often repeated charge that Lenin "used the soviets tactically to achieve absolute power". However, an analysis of the article that Lenin wrote at a later date demonstrates that his concerns were radically different from those attributed to him by Anweiler: he was trying to find a way to get the soviets out of the crisis they were in, to pull them back from the false path that was leading to their disappearance.

In the article On slogans, Lenin was unequivocal: "After the experience of July 1917, it is the revolutionary proletariat that must independently take over state power. Without that the victory of the revolution is impossible. [...] Soviets may appear in this new revolution, and indeed are bound to, but not the present Soviets, not organs collaborating with the bourgeoisie, but organs of revolutionary struggle against the bourgeoisie. It is true that even then we shall be in favour of building the whole state on the model of the Soviets. It is not a question of Soviets in general, but of combating the present counter-revolution and the treachery of the present Soviets."[13] He specifically asserts: "A new cycle is beginning, one that involves not the old classes, not the old parties, not the old Soviets, but classes, parties and Soviets rejuvenated in the fire of struggle, tempered, schooled and refashioned by the process of the struggle."[14]

The writings of Lenin contributed to a stormy debate in the ranks of the Bolshevik Party, which crystallised during the Sixth Party Congress. It was held from July 26th to August 3rd in the strictest secrecy and in the absence of Lenin and Trotsky, who were being pursued by police. In the Congress three positions were put forward: the first, reflecting the disorientation of the defeat in July and the drift of the soviets, openly proposed "abandoning them" (Stalin, Molotov, Sokolnikov); the second vehemently supported sticking with the old position of "All power to the soviets"; the third advocated entrusting the "grass roots" organisations (factory councils, local soviets, district soviets) with responsibility for reconstituting the collective power of workers.

In mid-July, the masses are beginning to recover

It was the last that proved to be the correct position. From mid-July the "grass roots" soviet organisations had begun a fight for the renewal of the soviets.

In the second article of this series we saw how the masses were organised around the soviets in a huge network of soviet organisations of all sorts, that expressed their unity and strength.[15] The apex of the soviet system - the soviets in the towns - did not preside over an ocean of passivity of the masses; just the opposite, there was an intense collective life embodied in thousands of assemblies, factory councils, district soviets, inter-district assemblies, conferences, formal and informal meetings... In his Memoires, Sukhanov[16] gives us an idea of the atmosphere that prevailed at the Conference of the Petrograd Factory Councils: "On May 30th in the White Hall, a conference of workshop and factory committees from the capital and surrounding areas was convened. The conference had been prepared from the ‘grass roots'; its planning had been conceived in the factories without the involvement of any government bodies concerned with labour issues, or even the soviets. [...] The conference was truly representative: the workers came from their workbenches, and they participated actively in its work in large numbers. For two days, this workers' parliament discussed the economic crisis and the breakdown inside the country."[17]

Even in the worst moments following the July Days, the masses were able to maintain these organisations, which were less affected by the crisis than "the big soviet organs": the Petrograd Soviet, the Congress of Soviets and its executive committee, the CEC (Central Executive Committee).

Two concomitant reasons explain this difference. First, the "grass roots" soviet organisations were directly convened under pressure from the masses who, realising the problems and the hazards, called for an assembly and saw it convened within the space of a few hours. The situation of the soviet organs "at the top level" was very different: "However as the Soviet worked more efficiently, it lost proportionately its direct contact with the masses. The plenary sessions, almost daily during the early weeks, were less frequent and only sparsely attended by the deputies. The Soviet Executive became increasingly independent, even though it remained subject to certain controls of the deputies, who had the right to discharge it."[18]

Secondly, the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries were concentrated in the bureaucratic nucleus of the large soviet organs. Sukhanov described the atmosphere of intrigue and manipulation that emanated from the Petrograd Soviet: "The Presidium of the Soviet, which was originally an organ to manage internal procedure, tended to substitute itself for the Executive Committee in its functioning. In addition, it strengthened itself through a permanent and somewhat occult organisation that got the name ‘the Star Chamber'. It included members of the Presidium and a sort of clique made up from the devoted friends of Cheidze and Tsereteli. The latter, with the shame and the disgrace that went with it, was one of those accused of being dictatorial inside the Soviet."[19]

By contrast, the Bolsheviks conducted an active and daily intervention inside the soviets at the grass roots level. Their presence was very dynamic, they were often the first to propose meetings and debates and the adoption of resolutions that would give expression to the will and the advancement of the masses.

On July 15th, a demonstration of workers from the large factories in Petrograd massed in front of the building housing the soviet to denounce the slander against the Bolsheviks and to demand the release of prisoners. On July 20th, the assembly at the arms factory in Sestroretsk demanded the payment of wages that had been withheld owing to workers' involvement in the July Days; they devoted the money they recovered to funding the anti-war press. Trotsky recounts how, on July 24th, "...a meeting of the workers of 27 plants in the Peterhoff District passed soon after that a resolution of protest against the irresponsible government and its counter-revolutionary policy."[20]

Trotsky also noted that on July 21st delegations of soldiers from the front arrived in Petrograd. They were tired of all the hardship they were suffering and the repression the officers inflicted on the most visible individuals. They spoke about it to the Executive Committee of the soviet, which didn't consider it of any significance. Then several militant Bolsheviks suggested contacting the factories and the soldiers' and sailors' regiments. The reception there was completely different: they were received like brothers, listened to, fed and housed.

"At a conference that nobody summoned from above, which grew up spontaneously from below, representatives were present from 29 regiments at the front, from 90 Petrograd factories, from the Kronstadt sailors and from the surrounding garrisons. At the focus of the conference stood the trench delegates - among them a number of young officers. The Petrograd workers listened to the men from the front eagerly, trying not to let fall a word of their own. The latter told how the offensive and its consequences had devoured the revolution. Those grey soldiers - not in any sense agitators - painted in unstudied words the workaday life of the front. The details were disturbing - they demonstrated so nakedly how everything was crawling back to the old, hateful, pre-revolutionary regime", says Trotsky, and he adds the following: "Although Socialist-Revolutionaries obviously predominated among the men from the front, a drastic Bolshevik resolution was passed almost unanimously: only three men abstained from the voting. That resolution will not remain a dead letter. The dispersing delegates will tell the truth about how the Compromise leaders repulsed them and the workers received them."[21]

The Kronstadt Soviet - one of the vanguard posts of the revolution - also got to hear: "On 20th July a meeting in Yakorny Square demanded the transfer of power to the soviets, the sending of the Cossacks to the front with the gendarmes and police, the abolition of the death penalty, the admission of the Kronstadt delegates to Tsarskoe Selo to make sure that Nicholas II was adequately guarded, the disbandment of the ‘Battalions of Death', the confiscation of the bourgeois newspapers, etc."[22] In Moscow, the factory councils had agreed to hold joint meetings with the regimental committees, and in late July a conference of factory councils to which soldiers' representatives were invited adopted a resolution denouncing the government and demanding "new soviets to replace the government." In the elections on August 1st, six of the ten district councils in Moscow had a Bolshevik majority.

Faced with the price increases agreed by the Government and plant closures organised by the bosses, strikes and mass protests began to grow. Sectors of the working class hitherto considered to be "backward" (paper, leather, rubber, and janitors, etc.) also took part.

Sukhanov reported a significant development in the Workers' Section of the Petrograd Soviet: "When the Workers' Section of the Soviet created a Presidium, which it did not have before, the Presidium was found to be made up of Bolsheviks."[23]

In August a National Conference was held in Moscow whose objective was denounced by Sukhanov, as: "suppressing ‘all democratic' opinion to benefit ‘nation-wide' opinion, thus freeing the government of ‘the whole country' from the control of all kinds of organisations, of workers, peasants, Zimmerwaldians, half-Germans, half-Jews and other groups of hoodlums."[24]

Workers recognised the danger and many assemblies voted motions calling for a general strike. The Moscow Soviet rejected them by 364 votes to 304 but the district soviets protested against this decision: "The factories immediately demanded new elections to the Moscow Soviet, which was not only lagging behind the masses, but coming into sharp conflict with them. In the Zamoskvoretsky (Moscow suburb south of the Moskva) district soviet, which met jointly with the factory committees, a demand for the recall of those deputies who had ‘gone against the will of the working class' received 175 votes with 4 against and 19 abstaining!"[25] More than 400,000 workers went on strike, which spread to other towns like Kiev, Kostrava and Tsatarin.

The mobilisation and self-organisation of the masses foils the Kornilov coup

These are only a few significant facts, the tip of the iceberg of a vast process that showed a turning point in the attitudes that predominated from February to June - more passive, still suffering many illusions, and with the protests more restricted in workplaces, districts or towns:

  • numerous unitary assemblies of workers and soldiers were opened up to peasant delegates. The conference of factory and district soviets and factory districts invited soldiers' and sailors' delegates to work with them;
  • there was growing confidence in the Bolsheviks: after being slandered in July, the indignation at the persecution they suffered fuelled increasing recognition of the validity of their analyses and their slogans;
  • the multiplication of demands could only be met by the renewal the soviets and by taking power.


The bourgeoisie saw that the gains it had made in July were at risk of going up in smoke. The failure of the National Conference in Moscow was a big setback. English and French Embassies pushed for "decisive" action. This was the context of the "plan" for a military coup by General Kornilov.[26] Sukhanov emphasised that "Miliukov Rodzianko and Kornilov themselves had conceived it! Dumbfounded, these valiant heroes of the revolution had begun urgently to prepare, in secret, their plan of action. To allay suspicion, they stirred up public opinion against what the Bolsheviks might do next."[27]


We cannot analyse here all the details of the operation.[28] The important thing is that the massive mobilisation of workers and soldiers managed to stop the military machine in its tracks. And what is remarkable is that this response was made by developing an organisational effort that would provide the final impetus for the renewal of the Soviets and their march towards the seizure of power.

On the night of August 27th, the Petrograd Soviet proposed the formation of a Military Revolutionary Committee to organise the defence of the capital. The Bolshevik minority accepted the proposal but added that such a body "must be supported by the mass of workers and soldiers."[29] At the next session the Bolsheviks made a new proposal, accepted reluctantly by the Menshevik majority for, "the sharing of weapons in the factories and working-class neighbourhoods".[30] When announced, there was a quick response: "In the districts, according to the workers' press, there immediately appeared ‘whole queues of people eager to join the ranks of the Red Guard'. Drilling began in marksmanship and the handling of weapons. Experienced soldiers were brought in as teachers. By the 29th, Guards had been formed in almost all districts. The Red Guard announced its readiness to put in the field a force of 40,000 rifles. [...] The giant Putilov factory became the centre of resistance in the Peterhoff district. Here fighting companies were hastily formed. The work of the factory continued night and day; there was a sorting out of new cannon for the formation of proletarian artillery divisions."[31]

In Petrograd, "... the district soviets were drawing more closely together and passing resolutions: to declare the inter-district conferences continuous; to place their representatives in the staff organised by the Executive Committee; to form a workers' militia; to establish control of the district soviets over the government commissars; to organise flying brigades for the detention of counter-revolutionary agitators."[32] These measures "meant an appropriation not only of very considerable government functions, but also of the functions of the Petrograd Soviet. [...] The entrance of the Petrograd districts into the arena of the struggle instantly changed both its scope and its direction. Again the inexhaustible vitality of the soviet form of organisation was revealed. Although paralysed above by the leadership of the Compromisers, the soviets were reborn again from below at the critical moment under pressure from the masses."[33]

This generalisation of the self-organisation of the masses spread across the country. Trotsky cites the case of Helsingfors where "a general congress of all the soviet organisations which sent its commissars to the offices of the governor general, the commandant, the Intelligence service, and other important institutions. Thenceforth, no order was valid without its signature. The telegraphs and telephones were taken under control",[34] and something happened that was very significant: "On the second day, a rank-and-file Cossack appeared before the Committee with the announcement that the whole regiment is against Kornilov. Cossack representatives were for the first time introduced into the Soviet."[35]

September 1917: the total renewal of the soviets

The suppression of the Kornilov coup provided a dramatic reversal of the balance of power between the classes: the Provisional Government of Kerensky was implicated in the whole thing. The masses took sole control over these events, by strengthening and revitalising their collective organs. Their response to Kornilov was "the start of a radical transformation of the whole situation, a revenge for the July Days. The Soviet was reborn!"[36]

The newspaper of the Cadet Party,[37] Retch, was not mistaken when it stated: "The streets are already swarming with armed workers who terrorise peaceable inhabitants. In the soviets, the Bolsheviks firmly demanded their imprisoned comrades be set free. Everyone was convinced that once the action of General Kornilov was over, the Bolsheviks, opposed by the majority in the Soviet, would use all their energy to force it to adopt at least a part of their programme." Retch was however mistaken about one thing: it was not the Bolsheviks who forced the soviet to follow their programme; it was the masses who forced the soviets to adopt the Bolshevik programme.

The workers had gained enormous confidence in themselves and they wanted to apply this to the complete renewal of the soviets. Town after town, soviet after soviet, in a dizzying process, the old social traitors' majorities were overthrown and new soviets with majorities for Bolsheviks and other revolutionary groups (Left Social Revolutionaries, Menshevik internationalists, anarchists) emerged after discussions and massive voting.

Sukhanov describes the state of mind of the workers and soldiers: "Driven on by class instinct and, to some extent, class consciousness; with the theoretical input provided by the Bolsheviks, tired of war and the toll of suffering; disappointed by the sterility of the revolution that had given them nothing as yet; angry with the bosses and the government who were themselves still living in comfort; wishing to exercise the power that was theirs at last, they were eager to go into battle."[38]

The episodes in this re-conquest and renewal of the soviets are legion. "On the night of September 1st, while still under the presidency of Cheidze, the Soviet voted for a government of workers and peasants. The rank-and-file members of the compromisist factions almost solidly supported the resolution of the Bolsheviks. The rival proposal of Tsereteli got only 15 votes. The compromisist presidium could not believe their eyes. The Right demanded a roll call and this dragged on until three o'clock in the morning. To avoid openly voting against their parties, many of the delegates went home. But even so, and despite all the methods of pressure, the resolution of the Bolsheviks received in the final vote 279 votes against 115. It was a fact of great importance. It was the beginning of the end. The presidium, stunned, said they would resign."[39]

On September 2nd, a conference of all the soviets in Finland adopted a resolution for power to be assumed by the soviets, by 700 votes for, 13 against, with 36 abstentions. The Regional Conference of Soviets in Siberia approved a similar resolution. The Moscow Soviet did the same on September 5th during a dramatic meeting in which it approved a motion of distrust in the Provisional Government and the Executive Committee. "On the 8th, the Bolshevik resolution was adopted in the Kiev soviet of workers' deputies by a majority of 130 votes to 66 - although there were only 95 deputies in the official Bolshevik faction."[40] For the first time, the Soviet of peasants' representatives from the Petrograd region elected a Bolshevik as its delegate.

The culminating point of this process was the historic session of the Petrograd Soviet, on September 9th. Preparations were made through countless meetings in factories, neighbourhoods and in the regiments. Around 1,000 delegates attended a meeting where the Bureau had proposed to cancel the vote of August 31st. The new vote gave a result that signified the definitive rejection of the social traitors' policy: 519 votes against cancellation and for the soviets taking power; 414 votes for the presidium and 67 abstentions.

One might think, from a superficial standpoint, that the renewal of the soviets was merely a change of majority, passing from the social- traitors to the Bolsheviks.

It is certain - and we'll deal with it at greater length in the next article in this series - that the working class and therefore its parties too, were still burdened by a vision strongly influenced by parliamentarism in which the class chooses "representatives to act in its name", but it is important to understand that this was not the basis for the renewal of the soviets.

1) The renewal was built on the vast network of meetings of grass roots soviets (factory and district councils, committees from the regiments, joint meetings). After the Kornilov coup, the occurrence of these meetings multiplied dramatically. Each soviet session adopted a unified and clear position derived from an infinite number of preliminary meetings.

2) This self-organisation of the masses was consciously and actively driven by the renewal by the soviets. While previous soviets were autonomous and called only a few massive gatherings, the new soviets called for open meetings on a daily basis. While the former soviets feared and even disapproved of the assemblies in the factories and neighbourhoods, the new ones continually summoned them. The soviet called for meetings "of the grass roots" around each significant or substantial debate so it could adopt a position. The fourth coalition Provisional Government (on September 25th) met a reaction: "Close upon the resolution of the St. Petersburg Soviet refusing to support the new coalition, a wave of meetings swept through the two capitals and the province. Hundreds of thousands of workers and soldiers, protesting against the formation of the new bourgeois government, pledged to carry out a determined struggle against it and demanded power to the Soviets."[41]

3) The proliferation of regional congresses of soviets - which spread like wildfire across all Russian territories from mid-September - was spectacular. "During these weeks the numerous regional soviet congresses meeting reflected the mood of the masses. The Moscow regional congress held in early October demonstrated a typically rapid Bolshevisation and polarisation. At the beginning of the deliberations the Social Revolutionaries offered a resolution opposing the transfer of power to the soviets, which carried 159 votes against 132. But in another vote, three days later, the Bolshevik fraction won 116 votes with 97 opposed. [...] At many later soviet congresses Bolshevik resolutions were also passed, all calling for the assumption of power by the all-Russian Soviet Congress and for removal of the Provisional Government. In Ekaterinburg, 120 delegates from 56 Ural soviets met on October 13th; 86 of them were Bolsheviks. [...] In Saratov, the Volga regional congress rejected a Menshevik-Social Revolutionary resolution and adopted a Bolshevik one..."[42]

But it is important to clarify two issues that are fundamental for us.

The first is the fact that the Bolsheviks' resolutions winning a majority meant much more than a simple delegation voting for a party. The Bolshevik Party was the only party clearly in favour not only of the seizure of power but of putting forward a concrete way of doing it: an insurrection with a comprehensive plan which would overthrow the Provisional Government and dismantle the power of the state. While the social-traitor parties announced their intention to force the soviets to commit hara-kiri, while other revolutionary parties made unrealistic or vague proposals, only the Bolsheviks were convinced that "...the Soviet of Workers; and Soldiers' Deputies is a reality only as an organ of insurrection, as an organ of revolutionary power. Apart from this, the Soviets are a meaningless plaything that can only produce apathy, indifference and disillusion among the masses, who are legitimately disgusted at the endless repetition of resolutions and protests."[43]

It was therefore natural that the masses of workers put their trust in the Bolsheviks not by giving them a blank cheque, but by seeing them as an instrument of their own struggle that was approaching its high point: the insurrection and taking power. "The camp of the bourgeoisie now had reason to be alarmed. The crisis was clear to everyone. The movement of the masses was visibly overflowing; the excitement in the working class neighbourhoods of St. Petersburg was evident. We only listened to the Bolsheviks. At the famous Modern Amphitheatre, where Trotsky, Volodarsky and Lunacharsky came to speak, we saw endless queues and crowds that the huge building was unable to hold. The agitators encouraged the move from rhetoric to action and promised power to the Soviet in the immediate future." This was how Sukhanov, despite being an opponent of the Bolsheviks, described the atmosphere that prevailed in mid-October. [44]

Secondly, the accumulated evidence of September and October pointed to a significant change in the mentality of the masses. As we saw in the previous article in this series, the slogan "All power to the soviets" raised tentatively in March, defended forcefully by Lenin in April, proclaimed massively in demonstrations in June and July, had until then been more an aspiration than a consciously adopted programme of action.

One reason for the failure of the movement in July was that the majority was demanding that the soviets "force" the Provisional Government to appoint some "socialist ministers".

This division between Soviet and Government showed a clear misunderstanding of the work of the proletarian revolution, which is certainly not "to choose its own government" and so preserve the structure of the old state, but to destroy the state apparatus and assume power directly. Although, as we will see in the next article, the multitude of new problems and confusions would affect the consciousness of the masses, they were beginning to see the slogan "All power to the soviets" in more concrete and accurate terms.

Trotsky shows how, having lost control of the Petrograd Soviet, the social traitors used every means at their disposal, concentrating on their last bastion, the CEC: "The Executive Committee had in good season taken away from the Petrograd Soviet the two newspapers established by it, all the administrative offices, all funds and all technical equipment, including the typewriters and inkwells. The innumerable automobiles that had been at the disposal of the Soviet since February, had every last one of them been transferred into the keeping of the compromisist Olympus. The new leaders had nothing - no treasury, no newspapers, no secretarial apparatus, no means of transport, no pen or pencil. Nothing but bare walls and the burning confidence of the workers and soldiers. That, however, proved sufficient."[45]

The Military Revolutionary Committee, soviet organ of the insurrection

In early October, a flood of resolutions from soviets throughout the country called for the Congress of Soviets, continually postponed by the social-traitors, to be held so that practical measures could begin for the seizure of power.

This orientation was a response both to the situation in Russia and to the international situation. In Russia, the peasant revolts were spreading into almost all regions and there were widespread seizures of the land; soldiers were deserting their barracks and returning to their villages, exhibiting growing fatigue faced with an inextricable war; workers in the factories were having to deal with production being sabotaged by some bosses and managers; the whole of society was threatened with famine due to the total breakdown of supplies and the increasing cost of living. On the international frontline, desertions, insubordination and fraternisation between soldiers of both sides multiplied; a wave of strikes swept across Germany, a general strike broke out in August 1917 in Spain. The Russian proletariat had to seize power, not only to respond to the intractable problems facing the country but, more importantly, to open a breach through which the world revolution could develop against the terrible suffering caused by three years of war.

Against the revolutionary upsurge of the masses, the bourgeoisie used its own weapons. In September, it attempted to hold a democratic conference which failed once again, like that in Moscow. For their part, the social-traitors did everything possible to delay the Congress of Soviets, with the goal of keeping the soviets throughout the country dispersed and disorganised and thus preventing their unification for the purpose of seizing power.

But the most formidable weapon, and one still taking shape, was the attempt to sabotage the defence of Petrograd so that the German Army could crush the most advanced bastion of the revolution. Kornilov, the "patriot", had already tried out this coup in August when he abandoned revolutionary Riga[46] to German troops who "restored order" in a bloodbath. The bourgeoisie that makes national defence its credo, using it as a poison against the proletariat, does not hesitate to ally itself with its fiercest imperialist rivals when it sees its power threatened by the class enemy.

This issue, the defence of Petrograd, led the discussions in the Soviet to the formation of a Military-Revolutionary Committee, composed of elected delegates from the Petrograd Soviet, from the soldiers' section of this Soviet, from the Soviet delegates from the Baltic Fleet, from the Red Guard, from the Regional Committee of Soviets in Finland, from the Conference of the factory councils, from the railway union and from the military organisation of the Bolshevik Party. A young and combative member of the Left Social Revolutionaries, Lazimir, was appointed head of this committee. The objectives of the committee were both to defend Petrograd and to prepare the armed uprising, two objectives which "heretofore mutually exclusive, were now in fact growing into one. Having seized the power, the Soviet would be compelled to undertake the military defence of Petrograd." [47]

The next day a Standing Conference of the whole garrison of Petrograd and the region was summoned. With these two organs, the proletariat was equipping itself with the means for the insurrection, the essential and indispensable means for the seizure of power.

In a previous article in the International Review, we demonstrated how - contrary to the fairy tales woven by the bourgeoisie that present October as a "Bolshevik coup d'etat" - the insurrection was the work of the soviets and more specifically the Petrograd Soviet.[48] The organs that had meticulously prepared, step by step, the military defeat of the Provisional Government, the last bastion of the bourgeois state, were the Military-Revolutionary Committee and the Standing Conference of the garrisons. The MRC forced the Army headquarters to submit for approval any order and any decision, no matter how trivial, thus completely paralysing it. On October 22nd during a dramatic meeting, the last recalcitrant regiment -that of the Peter and Paul - agreed to submit to the MRC. On October 23rd, on a momentous day, thousands of assemblies of workers and soldiers were involved in the final seizure of power. The checkmate executed by the insurrection of October 25th, which occupied the headquarters and the seat of the Provisional Government, confronted the last battalions that were faithful to it, arrested ministers and generals, occupied the centres of communication and thereby laid the conditions so that the next day the Congress of Soviets of all the Russias took power.[49]

In the next article in this series, we see the enormous problems that the soviets had to face after taking power.

C. Mir 6-6-10


[1]. International Review n° 140.

[2]. International Review n° 141.

[3]. Trotsky, History of the Russian Revolution, volume 2, chapter 11 "The Masses Under Attack, p. 756 (Pluto Press).

[4]. See the very detailed refutation of this thesis in Trotsky op. cit., volume 2, chapter 4, "The Month of the Great Slander".

[5]. General Knox, head of the English military mission, said: "'I'm not interested in the Kerensky government, it is too weak. What is wanted is a strong dictatorship. What is wanted is the Cossacks. This people need the whip! A dictatorship - that is just what it needs.'  So said the representative of the government of the oldest democracy", quoted in Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 9, "The Kornilov Insurrection", p.724.

[6]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2 , chapter 11, "The Masses Under Attack", p.764.

[7]. Cavaignac: French general (1802-1857), executioner of the insurrection of Parisian workers in 1848.

[8]. Lenin, The political situation (Four theses), 23 (10) July 1917.

[9]. Ibid.

[10]. Ibid.

[11]. See references in the previous article in this series.

[12]. The Soviets, The Russian Workers, Peasants, and Soldiers Councils, 1905-1917; Chapter 4, "Bolshevism and the Councils of 1917", p. 170 (Pantheon Books, 1974).

[13]. Lenin, On slogans, Mid- July 1917.

[14]. Ibid.

[15]. See the previous article in this series in the section headed "March 1917: a gigantic network of soviets spreads throughout Russia", International Review n° 141.

[16]. Sukhanov, a Menshevik Internationalist, split from the left wing of Menshevism where Martov was a militant. He published his Memoires in 7 volumes. An abridged version was published in French as The Russian Revolution (Editions Stock, 1965). All quotations below are our translations from this French edition.

[17]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "Triumph of the reaction; Around the coalition", p.210.

[18]. Anweiler, op. cit. Chapter 3, "The Soviets and the Russian Revolution of 1917", p.108.

[19]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The Triumph of the reaction; In the depths".

[20]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 11, "The Masses Under Attack", p.767.

[21]. Ibid.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. Sukhanov, op. cit.  "Counter-revolution and disintegration of democracy; after July: the second and third coalitions".

[24]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The Shame of Moscow".

[25]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 6, "Kerensky and Kornilov", p.658.

[26]. Kornilov: fairly incompetent general who distinguished himself by his constant defeats at the front, was then praised by bourgeois parties and considered a "patriotic hero" after the July Days.

[27]. Sukhanov, op. cit. "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[28]. See Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 5, "The Counter-Revolution Lifts its head"; chapter 6, "Kerensky and Kornilov"; chapter 8, "Kerensky's Plot" and chapter 9, "Kornilov's Insurrection".

[29]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[30]. Ibid.

[31]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 10, "The Bourgeoisie Measures Strength with the Democracy", p.735.

[32]. Ibid, p.734.

[33]. Ibid, our emphasis.

[34]. Ibid, p.737.

[35]. Ibid.

[36] Sukhanov, op. cit., "The bourgeoisie unified in action".

[37]. Cadet Party: Constitutional Democratic Party, the main bourgeois party of the time.

[38]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Disintegration of Democracy after the Kornilov Uprising".

[39]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, "The Rising Tide", p.803.

[40]. Ibid.

[41]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Artillery Preparation".

[42]. Anweiler, op. cit., chapter 4, "Bolshevism and the Councils, 1917," p.182. In the appendices there is a list of the many regional conferences that virtually covered the whole empire, and through their votes decided on the seizure of power.

[43]. Lenin, Theses for the report to the conference of 8th October on the organisation of Petersburg. "On the slogan ‘All Power to the Soviets'", October 8th, 1917.

[44]. Sukhanov, op. cit., "The Artillery Preparation".

[45]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 2, chapter 12, "The Rising Tide, p.807.

[46]. Capital of Estonia, then part of the Russian Empire.

[47]. Trotsky, op. cit., volume 3, "The Military-Revolutionary Committee", p.945.

[48]. See our article "The Russian Revolution, part 2, The Soviets take power " in International Review n°72.

[49]. In our article "October 1917, A Victory of the Working Masses " (International Review n°. 91), we develop a detailed analysis on how the insurrection of the proletariat had nothing to do with a revolt or a conspiracy, what rules it followed, and the indispensable role played in it by the party of the proletariat.

Historic events: 


History of the workers' movement: 

Decadence of capitalism (vii): Rosa Luxemburg and the limits to capitalist expansion


As we saw in the last article in this series, the central target of the revisionist attack on the revolutionary core of marxism was the latter's theory of the inevitable decline of capitalism, resulting from the irresolvable contradictions built into its relations of production. Eduard Bernstein's brand of revisionism, which Rosa Luxemburg refuted so lucidly in Social Reform or Revolution, was to a large extent based on a series of empirical observations derived from the unprecedented period of expansion and prosperity the most powerful capitalist nations lived through in the last decades of the 19th century. There was little pretence of founding the critique of Marx's "catastrophic" view on any profound theoretical investigation of Marx's economic theories. In many ways Bernstein's arguments were similar to those favoured by many bourgeois experts during the phase of economic boom that followed the Second World War, and even during the even more precarious "growth" in the first years of the 21st century: capitalism is delivering the goods, ergo it will always be able to deliver the goods.

Other economists, however, not yet completely divorced from the workers' movement, sought to base their reformist strategies on a "marxist" approach. One such case was the Russian Tugan Baronowski, who in 1901 published a book entitled Studies in the Theory and History of Commercial Crises in England. Following the work of Struve and Bulgakov a few years before, Tugan Baranowski's study was part of the "legalist Marxist" response to the Russian populists, who tried to argue that capitalism would face insuperable difficulties in establishing itself in Russia; one of these was the problem of finding sufficient markets for its production. Like Bulgakov, Tugan tried to take Marx's schemes for expanded reproduction in Volume 2 of Capital as proof that there was no fundamental problem of realisation of surplus value in the capitalist system, that it was possible for it to accumulate indefinitely in a harmonious manner as a "closed system". As Rosa Luxemburg summed it up:

"There can be no doubt that the ‘legalist' Russian Marxists achieved a victory over their opponents, the ‘populists', but that victory was rather too thorough. In the heat of battle, all three - Struve, Bulgakov and Tugan Baranovski - overstated their case. The question was whether capitalism in general, and Russian capitalism in particular, is capable of development; these Marxists, however, proved this capacity to the extent of even offering theoretical proof that capitalism can go on forever."[1]

Tugan's thesis brought a swift response from those who still adhered to the marxist theory of crisis, in particular the spokesman of "marxist orthodoxy", Karl Kautsky, who insisted in particular that because neither capitalists nor workers could consume the whole of the surplus value produced by the system, it was constantly driven to conquer new markets outside itself: 

"Although capitalists increase their wealth and the number of exploited workers grows, they cannot themselves form a sufficient market for capitalist-produced commodities, as accumulation of capital and productivity grow even faster. They must find a market in those strata and nations which are still non-capitalist. They find this market, and expand it, but still not fast enough, since this additional market hardly has the flexibility and ability to expand the capitalist process of production. Once capitalist production has developed large-scale industry, as was already the case in England in the nineteenth century, it has the possibility of expanding by such leaps and bounds that it soon overtakes any expansion of the market. Thus, any prosperity which results from a substantial expansion in the market is doomed from the beginning to a short life, and will necessarily end in a crisis.

This, in short, is the theory of crises which, as far as we can see, is generally accepted by ‘orthodox' Marxists and which was set up by Marx".[2]

At more or less the same time, a member of the left wing of the American Socialist Party, Louis Boudin, weighed into the debate with a similar, though actually more developed analysis, in The Theoretical System of Karl Marx.[3]

Whereas Kautsky, as Luxemburg pointed out in The Accumulation of Capital, an Anticritique (1915), had posed the problem of the crisis in terms of "underconsumption" and in the somewhat imprecise framework of the relative speeds of accumulation and expansion of the market,[4] Boudin situated it more exactly in the unique character of the capitalist mode of production and the contradictions which led to the phenomenon of overproduction:

"Under the old slave and feudal systems there never was such a problem as overproduction, for the reason that production being for home consumption the only question that ever presented itself was: how much of the product produced shall be given to the slave or serf and how much of it should go to the slave-holder or feudal baron. When, however, the respective shares of the two classes were determined upon, each proceeded to consume its share without encountering any further trouble. In other words, the question always was, how the products should be divided, and there never was any question of overproduction, for the reason that the product was not to be sold in the market but was to be consumed by the persons immediately concerned in its production, either as master or slave....Not so, however, with our modern capitalistic industry. It is true that all of the product with the exception of that portion which goes to the workingman goes, now as before, to the master, now the capitalist. This, however, does not settle the matter finally, the reason is that the capitalist does not produce for himself but for the market. He does not want the things that the workingman produced, but he wants to sell them, and unless he is able to sell them, they are absolutely of no value to him. Saleable goods in the hands of the capitalist are his fortune, his capital, but when these goods become unsalable they are worthless, and his whole fortune contained in the stores of goods which he keeps melts away the moment the goods cease to be marketable.

"Who then, will buy the goods from our capitalists who introduced new machinery into their production, thereby largely increasing their output? Of course, there are other capitalists who may want these things, but when the production of society as whole is considered, what is the capitalist class going to do with the increased output which cannot be taken up by the working man? The capitalists themselves cannot use them, either by each keeping his own manufacture or by buying them from each other. And for a very simple reason, the capitalist class cannot itself use all the surplus products which its workingmen produce and which they take to themselves as their profits of production. This is already excluded by the very premise of capitalistic production on a large scale, and the accumulation of capital. Capitalistic production on a large scale implies the existence of large amounts of crystallised labour in the shape of great railroads, steamships, factories, machinery and other such manufactured products which have not been consumed by the capitalists, to whom they have fallen as their share or profit in the production of former years. As was already stated before, all the great fortunes of our modern capitalist kings, princes, barons, and other dignitaries of industry, titled or untitled, consist of tools and machinery in one form or another, that is to say, in an unconsumeable form. It is that share of the capitalist profits which the capitalists have ‘saved' and therefore left unconsumed. If the capitalists would consume all their profits there would be no capitalists in the modern sense of the word, there would be no accumulation of capital. In order that capital should accumulate the capitalist must not, under any circumstances, consume all his profits. The capitalist who does, ceases to be a capitalist and succumbs in the competition with is fellow capitalists. In other words, modern capitalism presupposes the saving habit of capitalists, that is to say, that part of profits of the individual capitalists must not be consumed but saved in order to increase the already existing capital... He cannot, therefore, consume all of his share in the manufactured product, It is evident, therefore, that neither the workingman nor the capitalist can consume of the whole of the increased product of manufacture? Who, then, will buy it up?"[5] 

Boudin then attempts to answer how capitalism deals with this problem, in a passage which Luxemburg quotes at length in a footnote to The Accumulation of Capital and which she presents as a "brilliant review" of Tugan's book:[6]

"With a single exception to be considered below, the existence of surplus product in capitalist countries does not put a spoke in the wheel of production, not because production will be distributed more efficiently among the various spheres, or because the manufacture of machinery will replace that of cotton goods. The reason is rather that, capitalist development having begun sooner in some countries than in others, and because even to-day there are still some countries that have no developed capitalism, the capitalist countries in truth have at their disposal an outside market in which they can get rid of their products which they cannot consume themselves, no matter whether these are cotton or iron goods. We would by no means deny that it is significant if iron goods replace cotton goods as the main products of the principal capitalist countries. On the contrary, this change is of paramount importance, but its implications are rather different from those ascribed to it by Tugan Baranovski. It indicates the beginning of the end of capitalism. So long as the capitalist countries exported commodities for the purpose of consumption, there was still a hope for capitalism in these countries, and the question did not arise how much and how long the non-capitalist outside world would be able to absorb capitalist commodities. The growing share of machinery at the cost of consumer goods in what is exported from the main capitalist countries shows that areas which were formerly free of capitalism, and therefore served as a dumping-ground for its surplus products, are now drawn into the whirlpool of capitalism. It shows that, since they are developing a capitalism of their own, they can by themselves produce the consumer goods they need. At present they still require machinery produced by capitalist methods since they are only in the initial stages of capitalist development. But all too soon they will need them no longer. Just as they now make their own cotton and other consumer goods they will in future produce their own iron ware. Then they will not only cease to absorb the surplus produce of the essentially capitalist countries, but they will themselves produce surplus products which they can place only with difficulty."[7]

Boudin thus goes further than Kautsky in insisting that the approaching completion of capitalism's conquest of the globe also signifies the "beginning of the end of capitalism".

Luxemburg examines the accumulation problem

At the same time as these responses were being written, Luxemburg was teaching at the party school in Berlin. In outlining the historical evolution of capitalism as a world system, she was led to return in greater depth to the writings of Marx, both because of her integrity as a teacher and a militant (she had a horror of simply churning out received wisdom in new packages and considered the task of every marxist was to develop and enrich marxist theory) and because of the increasingly urgent need to understand the perspectives facing world capitalism. In re-examining Marx, she would have found much to support her view that the problem of overproduction in relation to the market was a key to understanding the transient nature of the capitalist mode of production (see "The mortal contradictions of bourgeois society" in IR n° 139). Nevertheless, it seemed to her that Marx's schemes of expanded reproduction in Volume Two, however much they were intended by Marx to operate as a purely abstract, theoretical model for approaching the problem, implied that capitalism, which for the sake of argument Marx reduced to a society composed entirely of capitalists and workers, could accumulate in an essentially harmonious way as a closed system, disposing entirely of the surplus value it produced through the mutual interaction of the two main branches of production (the producer goods and consumer goods sectors). To her this seemed to be in contradiction with other passages in Marx (for example in Volume Three) which insist on the necessity for a constant expansion of the market and which at the same time posit an inherent limit to this expansion. If capitalism could operate as a self-regulating system, there may be temporary imbalances between the branches of production but there would be no inexorable tendency to produce an indigestible mass of commodities, no irresolvable crisis of overproduction; if simply the capitalist drive to accumulate in itself generated the constantly expanding demand needed to realise the whole of the surplus value, then how could marxists argue against the revisionists that capitalism was indeed fated to enter a phase of catastrophic crisis that would provide the objective foundations of the socialist revolution?

Luxemburg's answer was that it was necessary to move away from abstract schemes and situate capitalism's ascent in its real historical context. The whole history of capitalist accumulation could only be grasped as a constant process of inter-action with the non-capitalist economies that surrounded it. The most primitive communities which lived by hunting and gathering and had not yet generated a marketable social surplus were useless to capitalism and had to be swept aside through policies of direct destruction and genocide (even the human resources in these communities tended to be unsuitable for slave labour). But the economies which had developed a marketable surplus and in particular where commodity production was already internally developed (such as the great civilisations of India and China) provided not only raw materials but enormous markets for the production of the capitalist metropolises, enabling capitalism in the heartlands to overcome its periodic glut of commodities (this process is eloquently described in the Communist Manifesto). But as the Manifesto also insisted, even when the established capitalist powers tried to restrict the capitalist development of their colonies, these regions of the world inevitably became part of the bourgeois world, ruining pre-capitalist economies and converting them to the delights of wage labour - and thus displacing the problem of the additional demand required for accumulation onto another level. Thus, as Marx himself had put it, the more capitalism tended to become a universal system, the more it was fated to break down: "The universality towards which it irresistibly strives encounters barriers in its own nature, which will, at a certain stage of its development, allow it to be recognized as being itself the greatest barrier to this tendency, and hence will drive towards its own suspension."[8]

This approach enabled Luxemburg to understand the problem of imperialism. Capital had only begun to deal with the question of imperialism and its economic foundations, which in the period the book was written had not yet become such a central focus of concern for marxists. Now they were confronted with imperialism as a drive not only towards the conquest of the non-capitalist world, but also towards sharpening inter-imperialist rivalries between the major capitalist nations for the domination of the world market. Was imperialism an option, a convenience for world capital, as many of its liberal and reformist critics contended, or was it an inherent necessity of capitalist accumulation at a certain stage of its maturity? Here again the implications were far-reaching, since if imperialism was no more than an optional extra for capital, then it might be feasible to argue in favour of more reasonable and pacific policies. Luxemburg however concluded that imperialism was a necessity for capital - a means of prolonging its reign, which was equally pulling it inexorably towards its ruin.

"Imperialism is the political expression of the accumulation of capital in its competitive struggle for what remains still open of the non-capitalist environment. Still the largest part of the world in terms of geography, this remaining field for the expansion of capital is yet insignificant as against the high level of development already attained by the productive forces of capital; witness the immense masses of capital accumulated in the old countries which seek an outlet for their surplus product and strive to capitalise their surplus value, and the rapid change-over to capitalism of the pre-capitalist civilisations. On the international stage, then, capital must take appropriate measures. With the high development of the capitalist countries and their increasingly severe competition in acquiring non-capitalist areas, imperialism grows in lawlessness and violence, both in aggression against the non-capitalist world and in ever more serious conflicts among the competing capitalist countries. But the more violently, ruthlessly and thoroughly imperialism brings about the decline of non-capitalist civilisations, the more rapidly it cuts the very ground from under the feet of capitalist accumulation. Though imperialism is the historical method for prolonging the career of capitalism, it is also a sure means of bringing it to a swift conclusion. This is not to say that capitalist development must be actually driven to this extreme: the mere tendency towards imperialism of itself takes forms which make the final phase of capitalism a period of catastrophe."

The essential conclusion of The Accumulation of Capital was, therefore, that capitalism was entering a "period of catastrophe". It is important to note that she did not, as has often been falsely claimed, consider that capitalism was about to come to dead halt. She makes it quite clear that the non-capitalist milieu remains "the largest part of the world in terms of geography" and that non-capitalist economies still existed not only in the colonies but also in large parts of Europe itself.[9] Certainly the scale of these economic zones in value terms was diminishing relative to the growing capacity of capital to generate new value. But the world was still a long way off from becoming a system of pure capitalism as envisioned in Marx's schemas of reproduction:

"Marx's model of accumulation - when properly understood - is precisely in its insolubility the exact prognosis of the economically unavoidable downfall of capitalism as a result of the imperialist process of expansion whose specific task it is to realize Marx's assumption: the general and undivided rule of capital. Can this ever really happen? That is, of course, theoretical fiction, precisely because capital accumulation is not just an economic but also a political process."[10]

For Luxemburg, a world of just capitalists and workers was a theoretical fiction, but the more this point was reached, the more difficult and disastrous the process of accumulation would become, unleashing calamities that were not "merely" economic, but also military and political. The world war, which broke out not long after Accumulation was published, was a stunning confirmation of this prognosis. For Luxemburg, there is no purely economic collapse of capitalism, and still less an automatic, guaranteed link between capitalist breakdown and socialist revolution. What she announced in her theoretical work was precisely what was to be confirmed by the catastrophic history of the ensuing century: the growing manifestation of capitalism's decline as a mode of production, posing humanity with the alternative between socialism and barbarism, and calling on the working class specifically to develop the organisation and consciousness needed for the overthrow of the system and its replacement by a higher social order. 

A storm of criticism

Luxemburg considered that her thesis was not particularly controversial, precisely because she had based it firmly on the writings of Marx and subsequent followers of his method. And yet it was greeted with a huge storm of criticism - not only from revisionists and reformists, but also from revolutionaries like Pannekoek and Lenin, who in this debate found himself on the same side not only as the legal Marxists in Russia but also the Austro-marxists who were part of the semi-reformist camp within social democracy.

"I have read Rosa's new book Die Akkumulation  des Kapital. She has got into a shocking muddle. She has distorted Marx. I am very glad that Pannekoek and Eckstein and O. Bauer have all with one accord condemned her, and said against her what I said in 1899 against the Narodniks".[11]

The consensus was that Luxemburg had simply misread Marx and invented a problem where none existed: the schemas of expanded reproduction show that capitalism can indeed accumulate without any inherent limit in a world consisting purely of workers and capitalists. Marx's sums add up after all, so it must be true. Bauer was a little more nuanced: he did recognise that accumulation could only proceed if it was fuelled by a growing effective demand, but he came up with a simple answer: the population grows and therefore there are more workers, and therefore an expanding demand, a solution which takes the problem back to point zero because these new workers can still only consume the variable capital transferred to them from the capitalists. The essential view - maintained by nearly all of Luxemburg's critics to this day - is that the reproduction schemes do indeed show that there is no insoluble problem of realisation for capitalism.

Luxemburg was well aware that arguments put forward by Kautsky (or Boudin, although he was obviously a much less known figure in the movement) in defence of essentially the same thesis had not provoked such outrage:

"So far one thing is certain: in 1902, when attacking Tugan-Baranovsky, Kautsky refuted the same assertions which the ‘experts' use to oppose my Accumulation, and the ‘experts' attack as a horrible deviation from the true faith the same assertions, only this time dealing with the problem of accumulation in an exact manner, which Kautsky used in opposition to the revisionist Tugan-Baranovsky as the theory of crises ‘generally accepted' by orthodox Marxists."[12]

Why this outrage? It is easy to understand coming from the reformists and revisionists, because they are concerned above all to reject any possibility of a breakdown of the capitalist system. From the revolutionaries it is harder to grasp. We can certainly point to the fact - and this is very significant as regards the hysterical response - that Kautsky did not seek to relate his argument to the schema of reproduction[13] and thus did not appear as a "critic" of Marx. Perhaps this conservative spirit lies at the heart of many of Luxemburg's critics: a view that Capital is a kind of bible that supplies all the answers to our understanding of the rise and fall of the capitalist mode of production - a closed system in fact! Luxemburg, by contrast, argued forcefully that marxists had to recognise Capital for what it was - a work of genius, but still an unfinished work, particularly in its second and third volumes; and one which in any case could not have encompassed all subsequent developments in the evolution of the capitalist system.  

However, amidst all the scandalised responses, there was at least one very clear defence of Luxemburg's theory written during that period of war and revolutionary upheaval: "The marxism of Rosa Luxemburg" by the Hungarian George Lukacs, who at that point was a representative of the left wing of the communist movement.

Lukacs' essay, published in the collection History and Class Consciousness (1922) begins by outlining the principal methodological consideration in the debate about Luxemburg's theory. He argues that what fundamentally distinguishes the proletarian from the bourgeois world-outlook is that while the bourgeoisie is condemned by its social position to regard society from the point of view of an atomised, competing unit, the proletariat alone can develop a vision of reality as a totality:

"It is not the primacy of economic motives in historical explanation that constitutes the decisive difference between Marxism and bourgeois thought, but the point of view of totality. The category of totality, the all-pervasive supremacy of the whole over the parts is the essence of the method which Marx took over from Hegel and brilliantly transformed into the foundations of a wholly new science. The capitalist separation of the producer from the total process of production, the division of the process of labour into parts at the cost of the individual humanity of the worker, the atomisation of society into individuals who simply go on producing without rhyme or reason, must all have a profound influence on the thought, the science and the philosophy of capitalism. Proletarian science is revolutionary not just by virtue of its revolutionary ideas which it opposes to bourgeois society, but above all because of its method. The primacy of the category of totality is the bearer of the principle of revolution in science".

He then goes on to show that their lack of such a proletarian method prevented Luxemburg's critics from grasping the problem she had posed in The Accumulation of Capital:

"The debate as conducted by Bauer, Eckstein and Co. did not turn on the truth or falsity of the solution Rosa Luxemburg proposed to the problem of the accumulation of capital. On the contrary, discussion centred on whether there was a real problem at all and in the event its existence was denied flatly and with the utmost vehemence. Seen from the standpoint of vulgar economics this is quite understandable, and even inevitable. For if it is treated as an isolated problem in economics and from the point of view of the individual capitalist it is easy to argue that no real problem exists.

"Logically enough the critics who dismissed the whole problem also ignored the decisive chapter of her book (‘The historical determinants of Accumulation'). This can be seen from the way they formulated their key question. The question they posed was this: Marx's formulae were arrived at on the basis of a hypothetical society (posited for reasons of method) which consisted only of capitalists and workers. Were these formulae correct? How were they to be interpreted? The critics completely overlooked the fact that Marx posited this society for the sake of argument, i.e. to see the problem more clearly, before pressing forward to the larger question of the place of this problem within society as a whole. They overlooked the fact that Marx himself took this step with reference to so-called primitive accumulation, in Volume I of Capital. Consciously or unconsciously they suppressed the fact that on this issue Capital is an incomplete fragment which stops short at the point where this problem should be opened up. In this sense what Rosa Luxemburg has done is precisely to take up the thread where Marx left off and to solve the problem in his spirit.

"By ignoring these factors the opportunists acted quite consistently. The problem is indeed superfluous from the standpoint of the individual capitalist and vulgar economics. As far as the former is concerned, economic reality has the appearance of a world governed by the eternal laws of nature, laws to which he has to adjust his activities. For him the production of surplus value very often (though not always, it is true) takes the form of an exchange with other individual capitalists. And the whole problem of accumulation resolves itself into a question of the manifold permutations of the formulae M-C-M and C-M-C in the course of production and circulation, etc. It thus becomes an isolated question for the vulgar economists, a question unconnected with the ultimate fate of capitalism as a whole. The solution to the problem is officially guaranteed by the Marxist ‘formulae' which are correct in themselves and need only to be ‘brought up to date' - a task performed e.g. by Otto Bauer. However, we must insist that economic reality can never be understood solely on the basis of these formulae because they are based on an abstraction (viz. the working hypothesis that society consists only of capitalists and workers). Hence they can serve only for clarification and as a springboard for an assault on the real problem. Bauer and his confreres misunderstood this just as surely as the disciples of Ricardo misunderstood the problematics of Marx in their day".

A passage in the Grundrisse, which Lukacs would not yet have had access to, confirms this approach: the idea that the working class is a sufficient market for the capitalists is an illusion typical of the limited vision of the bourgeoisie:

"The relation of one capitalist to the workers of another capitalist is none of our concern here. It only shows every capitalist's illusion, but alters nothing in the relation of capital in general to labour. Every capitalist knows this about his worker, that he does not relate to him as producer to consumer, and he therefore wishes to restrict his consumption, i.e. his ability to exchange, his wage, as much as possible. Of course he would like the workers of other capitalists to be the greatest consumers possible of his own commodity. But the relation of every capitalist to his own workers is the relation as such of capital and labour, the essential relation. But this is just how the illusion arises - true for the individual capitalist as distinct from all the others - that apart from his workers the whole remaining working class confronts him as consumer and participant in exchange, as money spender, and not as worker. It is forgotten that, as Malthus says, ‘the very existence of a profit upon any commodity pre-supposes a demand exterior to that of the labourer who has produced it', and hence the demand of the labourer himself can never be an adequate demand. Since one production sets the other into motion and hence creates consumers for itself in the alien capital's workers, it seems to each individual capital that the demand of the working class posited by production itself is an ‘adequate demand'. On one side, this demand which production itself posits drives it forward, and must drive it forward beyond the proportion in which it would have to produce with regard to the workers; on the other side, if the demand exterior to the demand of the labourer himself disappears or shrinks up, then the collapse occurs."[14]

In questioning the letter of Marx, Luxemburg more than any other had been faithful to his spirit; but there are many more words by Marx which could be cited to support the central importance of the problem she posed.

In the next articles in this series, we will look at how the revolutionary movement tried to understand the process of capitalism's decline as it unfolded in front of their eyes in the tumultuous decades between 1914 and 1945.



[1]. The Accumulation of Capital, Chapter 24.

[2]. Neue Zeit, 1902, n°.5 (31), p.140.

[3]. First published in book form by Charles Kerr (Chicago) in 1915, this study was based on a series of articles in the International Socialist Review between May 1905 and October 1906.

[4]. "Let us forget that Kautsky calls this theory by the dubious name of an explanation of crises caused ‘by under-consumption'. Marx ridicules this in the second volume of Capital (p.414).Let us forget that Kautsky sees only the problem of crises, without noticing that capitalist production poses a problem apart from ups and downs in the state of business. Finally, let us forget that Kautsky's explanation - that the consumption of capitalists and workers does not grow ‘fast enough' for accumulation, which therefore needs an ‘additional market' - is rather vague and makes no attempt to understand the problem of accumulation in its exact terms". (Anticritique, chapter 2) Interesting that so many of Luxemburg's critics - not least the "marxist" ones - accuse her of being an underconsumptionist when she so explicitly rejects this idea! It is of course perfectly true that Marx argued on several occasions that the "the last cause of all real crises always remains the poverty and restricted consumption of the masses" (Capital, vol. III, chap XXX, p 484), but Marx is careful to explain that he is not referring to "the absolute consuming power", but to "the consuming power based on antagonistic conditions of distribution, which reduces the consumption of the great mass of the population to a variable minimum within more or less narrow limits. The consuming power is furthermore restricted by the tendency to accumulate, the greed for an expansion of capital and a production of surplus-value on an enlarged scale" (ibid, chap XV, p 244). In other words: crises are not the result of society's reluctance to consume as much as is physically possible, nor - more to the point, given the numerous mystifications about this, especially those emanating from the left wing of capital - are they caused by wages being "too low". If this were the case, then crises would be eliminated simply by raising wages, and this is precisely what Marx ridicules in Capital Volume II. The problem rather lies in the existence of the "antagonistic relations of distribution", that is, in the wage labour relationship itself, which must always give rise to a "surplus" value above what the capitalist pays to his workers.

[5]. Boudin, p 167-9.

[6]. Accumulation, chapter 23, footnote. Luxemburg's main criticism of Boudin was his apparently prescient idea that arms expenditure was a form of waste or "reckless expenditure", which seemed to go against her notion of "militarism as a province of accumulation" elaborated in the chapter with the same name in The Accumulation of Capital. But militarism could only be a province of accumulation in an epoch in which there was a real possibility that war - colonial conquests to be exact - could open up substantive new markets for capitalist expansion. With the shrinking of such outlets, militarism does indeed become a pure waste for global capitalism: even if the war economy appears to provide a "solution" to the crisis of overproduction by getting the economic machine in motion (most evidently in Hitler's Germany and during the Second World War for example).  In reality it expresses an immense destruction of value.

[7]. Quoted here directly from the English translation of The Accumulation, chapter 23, whose reference to Boudin is Die Neue Zeit, vol. xxv, part 1, "Mathematische Formeln gegen Karl Marx", p.604. A slightly different rendition of this passage in Boudin appears on p243-4 of the book.

[8]. Grundrisse, Notebook IV, "Circulation Process of Capital", p 410 in the Penguin and version.

[9]. "In reality, there are in all capitalist countries, even in those with the most developed large-scale industry, numerous artisan and peasant enterprises which are engaged in simple commodity production. In reality, alongside the old capitalist countries there are still those even in Europe where peasant and artisan production is still strongly predominant, like Russia, the Balkans, Scandinavia and Spain. And finally, there are huge continents besides capitalist Europe and North America, where capitalist production has only scattered roots, and apart from that the people of these continents have all sorts of economic systems, from the primitive Communist to the feudal, peasantry and artisan" (Anticritique, chapter 1). See the article "Overproduction, an unavoidable fetter on capitalist accumulation" for a contribution to understanding the role played by extra-capitalist markets during the period of capitalist decadence (ICC online)

[10]. Anticritique, chapter 6.

[11]. In The Making of Marx's Capital (Pluto Press, 1977) Roman Rosdolsky makes an excellent critique of Lenin's error in siding with Russian legalists and Austro-reformists against Luxemburg (see p. 472f). Although he also has his criticisms of Luxemburg, he recognises the profound value of her work and insists that marxism is of necessity a "break down" theory, pointing in particular to the tendency towards overproduction, as identified by Marx, as a key to understanding this. In fact, some of his criticisms of Luxemburg are actually quite hard to decipher. He insists that her main error was in not understanding that the reproduction schema were merely a "heuristic device", and yet Luxemburg's entire argument against her critics is that the schema can only be taken as a heuristic device and not as a real picture of the historical evolution of capital, not as a mathematical proof of the possibility of unlimited accumulation. (see p. 490 of Rosdolsky's book).

[12]. Anticritique, chapter 2.

[13]. In fact later on Kautsky himself lined up with the Austro-marxists: "In his magnum opus he strongly criticises Rosa Luxemburg's ‘hypothesis' that capitalism must break down for economic reasons; he asserts that Luxemburg ‘finds herself in opposition to Marx, who proved the opposite in the second volume of Capital, i.e. in the schemes of reproduction'" (Rosdolsky, op cit, p 451, citing Kautsky, Die Materialistische Geschichtsauffassung, vol. II, pp 546-47).

[14]. Grundrisse, the Chapter on Capital, Notebook 4. Marx also explains elsewhere that the idea that the capitalists themselves can constitute the market for expanded reproduction is based on a failure to understand the nature of capitalism:  "Since the aim of capital is not to minister to certain wants, but to produce profit, and since it accomplishes this purpose by methods which adapt the mass of production to the scale of production, not vice versa, a rift must continually ensue between the limited dimensions of consumption under capitalism and a production which forever tends to exceed this immanent barrier. Furthermore, capital consists of commodities, and therefore over-production of capital implies over-production of commodities. Hence the peculiar phenomenon of economists who deny over-production of commodities, admitting over-production of capital. To say that there is no general over-production, but rather a disproportion within the various branches of production, is no more than to say that under capitalist production the proportionality of the individual branches of production springs as a continual process from disproportionality, because the cohesion of the aggregate production imposes itself as a blind law upon the agents of production, and not as a law which, being understood and hence controlled by their common mind, brings the productive process under their joint control. It amounts furthermore to demanding that countries in which capitalist production is not developed, should consume and produce at a rate which suits the countries with capitalist production. If it is said that over-production is only relative, this is quite correct; but the entire capitalist mode of production is only a relative one, whose barriers are not absolute. They are absolute only for this mode, i.e., on its basis. How could there otherwise be a shortage of demand for the very commodities which the mass of the people lack, and how would it be possible for this demand to be sought abroad, in foreign markets, to pay the labourers at home the average amount of necessities of life? This is possible only because in this specific capitalist interrelation the surplus-product assumes a form in which its owner cannot offer it for consumption, unless it first reconverts itself into capital for him. If it is finally said that the capitalists have only to exchange and consume their commodities among themselves, then the entire nature of the capitalist mode of production is lost sight of; and also forgotten is the fact that it is a matter of expanding the value of the capital, not consuming it. In short, all these objections to the obvious phenomena of over-production (phenomena which pay no heed to these objections) amount to the contention that the barriers of capitalist production are not barriers of production generally, and therefore not barriers of this specific, capitalist mode of production. The contradiction of the capitalist mode of production, however, lies precisely in its tendency towards an absolute development of the productive forces, which continually come into conflict with the specific conditions of production in which capital moves, and alone can move" Capital, Vol. 3, chapter 15, part III, our emphasis.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

General and theoretical questions: 


The Communist Left in Russia: Manifesto of the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Part 1)

The Communist Left in Russia The Manifesto of the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party

We are publishing below the Manifesto of the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), often called, from the name of one of its most visible leaders, the "Miasnikov Group" (see note 1 at end of article). This group formed part of what is called the Communist Left,[1] on the same basis as other groups in Russia itself and in other parts of the world, particularly in Europe. The different expressions of this current found their origin in the reaction to the opportunist degeneration of the parties of the Third International and of soviet power in Russia. They represented a proletarian response in the form of left currents, like those that had existed previously faced with the development of opportunism in the Second International.

Our introduction

In Russia itself, from 1918, left fractions appeared within the Bolshevik Party,[2] expressions of different disagreements with its politics.[3] This is in itself proof of the proletarian character of Bolshevism. Because it was a living expression of the working class, the only class that can make a radical and continuous critique of its own practice, the Bolshevik Party perpetually generated revolutionary fractions out of its own body. At every step in its degeneration voices were raised inside the party in protest, groupings were formed inside the party, or split from it, to denounce the betrayals of Bolshevism's original programme. Only when the party had been buried by its Stalinist gravediggers did these fractions no longer spring from it. The Russian left communists were all Bolsheviks; it was they who defended a continuity with the Bolshevism of the heroic years of the revolution, while those who slandered, persecuted and exterminated them, no matter how exalted their names, were the ones who were breaking with the essence of Bolshevism.

Lenin's withdrawal from political life was one of the factors which precipitated an open crisis in the Bolshevik Party. On the one hand, the bureaucratic faction consolidated its grip on the party, initially in the form of the "triumvirate" formed by Stalin, Zinoviev and Kamenev, an unstable bloc whose main cement was the will to isolate Trotsky. The latter, meanwhile, although with considerable hesitation, was compelled to move towards an overtly oppositional stance within the party.

At the same time, the Bolshevik regime was faced with new difficulties on the economic and social front. In the summer of 1923, the first clear crisis of the "market economy" installed by the NEP menaced the equilibrium of the whole economy. Just as the NEP had been introduced to counter the excessive state centralisation of war communism, which had resulted in the crisis of 1921, so now it became evident that the liberalisation of the economy had exposed Russia to some of the more classic difficulties of capitalist production. These economic difficulties, and above all the government's response to them - a policy of wage and job-cuts, like in any "normal" capitalist state - in turn aggravated the condition of the working class, which was already at the limits of impoverishment. By August-September 1923 a rash of spontaneous strikes had begun to spread through the main industrial centres.

The triumvirate, which was above all interested in preserving the status quo, had begun to see the NEP as the royal road to socialism in Russia; this view was theorised especially by Bukharin, who had moved from the extreme left to the right wing of the party, and who preceded Stalin in working out a theory of socialism in one country, albeit "at a snail's pace" thanks to the development of a "socialist" market economy. Trotsky on the other hand had already begun to call for more state centralisation and planning in response to the country's economic difficulties. But the first definite statement of opposition from within the leading circles of the party was the Platform of the 46, submitted to the Politburo in October 1923. The 46 was made up both of those who were close to Trotsky, such as Piatakov and Preobrazhinsky, and elements of the Democratic Centralism group like Sapranov, V Smirnov and Ossinski. It is not insignificant that Trotsky's signature was not on the document: the fear of being considered part of a faction (factions having been banned in 1921) certainly played a part in this. Nevertheless, his open letter to the Central Committee, published in Pravda in December 1923, and his pamphlet The New Course, expressed very similar concerns, and definitively placed him in the opposition's ranks.

The Platform of the 46 was initially a response to the economic problems facing the regime. It took up the cudgels for greater state planning against the pragmatism of the dominant apparatus and its tendency to elevate the NEP into an immutable principle. This was to be a constant theme of the left opposition around Trotsky - and as we shall see, not one of its strengths. More important was the urgent warning it issued about the stifling of the party's internal life.[4]

At the same time, the Platform distanced itself from what it referred to as "morbid" opposition groups, even if it saw the latter as expressions of the crisis within the party. This was undoubtedly a reference to currents like the Workers' Group around Miasnikov and Bogdanov's Workers' Truth which had emerged around the same time. Shortly afterwards, Trotsky took a similar view:  a rejection of their analyses as too extreme, while at the same time seeing them as manifestations of the unhealthy state of the party. Trotsky was also unwilling to collaborate in the methods of repression aimed at eliminating these groups.

In fact, these groups can by no means be dismissed as "morbid" phenomena. It is true that the Workers' Truth group expressed a certain trend towards defeatism and even Menshevism: as with most of the currents within the German and Dutch left, its insights into the rise of state capitalism in Russia were weakened by a tendency to put into question the October revolution itself, seeing it as a more or less progressive bourgeois revolution.[5]

This is not the case at all with the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), led by long-standing worker-Bolsheviks like Miasnikov, Kuznetsov and Moiseev. The group first came to prominence by distributing its Manifesto in April-May 1923, just after to the 13th Congress of the Bolshevik party.  An examination of this text confirms the seriousness of the group, its political depth and perceptiveness.

The text is not devoid of weaknesses. In particular, it is drawn towards the "theory of the offensive", which failed to see the retreat in the international revolution and the consequent necessity for a defensive struggle by the working class; this was the reverse of the coin to the analysis of the Communist International, which saw the retreat in 1921 but which drew largely opportunist conclusions from it. By the same token, the Manifesto adopts the erroneous view that in the epoch of the proletarian revolution, struggles for higher wages no longer have any positive role.

Despite this, the strengths of the document far outweigh its weaknesses:

  • its resolute internationalism. In contrast to Kollontai's Workers' Opposition group, there is not a trace of Russian localism in its analysis. The whole introductory part of the Manifesto deals with the international situation, clearly locating the difficulties of the Russian revolution in the delay of the world revolution, and insisting that the only salvation for the former lies in the revival of the latter:  "The Russian worker has learned to see himself as a soldier in the world army of the international proletariat and to see his class organisations as the regiments of this army. Every time the disquieting question of the destiny of the October revolution is raised, he turns his gaze beyond the frontiers of Russia, to where the conditions for revolution are ripe, but where the revolution does not come";
  • its searing critique of the opportunist policy of the United Front and the slogan of the Workers' Government; the priority accorded to this question is a further confirmation of the group's internationalism, since this was above all a critique of the politics of the Communist International. Nor was the group's position tainted with sectarianism:  it affirmed the need for revolutionary unity between the different communist organisations (such as the KPD and the KAPD in Germany), but completely rejected the CI's call for a bloc with the social democratic traitors, its spurious new argument that the Russian revolution had succeeded precisely though the Bolsheviks' clever use of the United Front tactic:  "...the tactic that will lead the insurgent proletariat to victory is not that of the United Front, but the bloody, uncompromising fight against these bourgeois fractions with their confused socialist terminology. Only this combat can lead to victory:  the Russian proletariat won not by allying with the Socialist Revolutionaries, the populists and the Mensheviks, but by struggling against them. It is necessary to abandon the tactic of the United Front and warn the proletariat that these bourgeois fractions - in today's period, the parties of the Second International - will at the decisive moment take up arms for the defence of the capitalist system";
  • its interpretation of the dangers facing the Soviet state - the threat of "the replacement of the proletarian dictatorship by a capitalist oligarchy". The Manifesto charts the rise of a bureaucratic elite and the political disenfranchisement of the working class, and demands the restoration of the factory committees and above all of the soviets to take over the direction of the economy and the state.[6] For the Workers' Group, the revival of workers' democracy was the only means to counter the rise of the bureaucracy, and it explicitly rejected Lenin's idea that the way forward lay through a shake out of the Workers' Inspection, since this was merely an attempt to control the bureaucracy through bureaucratic means;
  • its profound sense of responsibility. In contrast to the critical notes appended by the KAPD when it published the Manifesto in Germany (Berlin 1924), and which expressed the German left's premature pronunciation of the death of the Russian revolution and the Communist International, the Workers' Group is very cautious about proclaiming the definite triumph of the counter-revolution in Russia or the final death of the International. During the "Curzon crisis" of 1923, when it seemed that Britain might declare war on Russia, the members of the Workers' Group committed themselves to defending the Soviet republic in event of war; and above all, there is not the least hint of any repudiation of the October revolution and of the Bolshevik experience.  In fact, the group's stated attitude to its own role corresponds very closely to the notion of the left fraction as later elaborated by the Italian left in exile. It recognised the necessity to organise itself independently and even clandestinely, but both the group's title (Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party - Bolshevik), and the content of its Manifesto, demonstrate that it saw itself being in full continuity with the programme and statutes of the Bolshevik Party. It therefore appealed to all healthy elements within the party, both in the leadership and in the different opposition groupings like the Workers' Truth, the Workers' Opposition, and the Democratic Centralists, to regroup and wage a determined struggle for the regeneration of the party and the revolution. And in many ways this was a far more realistic policy than the hope of the "46" that the factional regime in the party would be abolished "in the first instance" by the dominant faction itself. 

In sum, there was nothing morbid in the project of the Workers' Group, and neither was this a mere sect with no influence in the class. Estimates put its membership in Moscow at 200 or so, and it was thoroughly consistent in its advocacy of taking the side of the proletariat in its struggle against the bureaucracy. It thus sought to make an active political intervention in the wildcat strikes of summer-autumn 1923. Indeed it was for this very reason, coupled with the growing political influence of the group within the ranks of the party, that the apparatus unleashed the full force of repression against it. As he had predicted, there was even an attempt to shoot Miasnikov "while trying to escape". Miasnikov survived and though imprisoned and then forced into exile, continued his revolutionary activity abroad for two decades. The group in Russia was more or less crippled by mass arrests, although it is clear from The Russian Enigma, Ante Ciliga's precious account of the opposition groups in prison in the late 20s, that it by no means disappeared completely and continued to influence the "extreme left" of the opposition movement. Nonetheless, this initial repression was a truly ominous moment: it was the first time that an avowedly communist group had suffered direct state violence under the Bolshevik regime.


Manifesto of the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party

By way of a preface

Every conscious worker, who cannot remain indifferent to the suffering and torment of his class nor to the titanic struggle that it is undertaking, has certainly reflected more than once on the destiny of our revolution at all stages of its development. Each one understands that his fate is very closely linked to that of the movement of the world proletariat.

We still read in the old Social-Democratic programme that "the development of commerce created a close link between the countries of the civilised world" and that "the movement of the proletariat must become international, and that it has already become such".

The Russian worker has learned to see himself as a soldier in the world army of the international proletariat and to see his class organisations as the regiments of this army. Every time the disquieting question of the destiny of the October revolution is raised, he turns his gaze beyond the frontiers of Russia, to where the conditions for revolution are ripe, but where the revolution does not come.

But the proletarian must not complain, nor lower his head because the revolution doesn't present itself at a given moment. On the contrary, he must pose the question: what is it necessary to do in order for the revolution to happen?

When the Russian worker looks at his own country, he sees a working class which has accomplished the socialist revolution, taken on the hardest trials of the NEP (New Economic Policy), while in front of him stand the increasingly well fed heroes of the NEP.  Comparing their situation to his, he asks himself with disquiet: where are we going exactly?

Then come the bitterest thoughts. The worker has shouldered the entire weight of imperialist and civil war; he is feted in the Russian newspapers as a hero who has spilt his blood in this struggle. But he leads a miserable bread and water existence. On the other hand, those who eat their fill on the torment and misery of others, of those workers who have laid down their arms, live in luxury and magnificence. Where are we going then, and what will come of it? Is it really possible that the "New Economic Policy" is being transformed into the New Exploitation of the Proletariat? What is to be done to avoid this danger?

When these questions are posed on the spot to the worker, he automatically looks backward so as to establish a link between past and present, to understand how we have arrived at such a situation. However bitter and instructive these experiences, the worker finds his bearings in the inextricable network of historic events which have unfolded in front of his eyes.

We want to help him, as far as our forces permit, to understand the facts and if possible show him the road to victory. We don't pretend to be magicians or prophets whose words are sacred or infallible; on the contrary we want all we say submitted to the sharpest criticisms and necessary corrections.

To the communist comrades of every country!

The present state of the productive forces in the advanced countries and particularly in those where capitalism is highly developed gives the proletarian movement of these countries the character of a struggle for the communist revolution, for power to be held by calloused hands, for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Either humanity will be involved in unceasing bourgeois and national wars, engulfed in barbarism and drowning in its own blood; or the proletariat will accomplish its historic mission: to conquer power and to put an end once and for all to the exploitation of man by man, to war between classes, peoples, nations; to plant the flag of peace, of labour and of fraternity.

The armaments race, the precipitous reinforcement of the aerial fleets of Britain, France, America, Japan, etc., threaten us with war of a severity unknown up to now and in which millions of men will perish; the wealth of the towns, factories, enterprises, all that the workers have created through exhausting work, will be destroyed.

It is the task of the proletariat to overthrow its own bourgeoisie. The more quickly that it does so in each country, the more quickly the world proletariat will realise its historic mission.

In order to finish with exploitation, oppression and wars, the proletariat must not struggle for an increase in wages or a reduction in its hours of work. This was necessary in the past, but today it must struggle for power.

The bourgeoisie and oppressors of all types and hues are very satisfied with the Socialists of all countries, precisely because they divert the proletariat away from its essential task which is the struggle against the bourgeoisie and against its regime of exploitation: they continually propose petty demands without showing the least resistance to subjection and violence. In this way, they become, at a certain moment, the sole saviours of the bourgeoisie faced with the proletarian revolution. The great mass of workers gives a distrustful reception to what its oppressors directly propose to it; but if the same thing is presented to it as conforming to their interests and clothed in socialist phrases, then the working class, confused by this language, is confident in the traitors and wastes its force in a useless combat. The bourgeoisie thus hasn't, and never will have, better advocates than the Socialists.

The communist avant-garde must before everything expel from the heads of its class comrades all crass bourgeois ideology and conquer the consciousness of the proletariat in order to lead it to a victorious struggle. But to burn off all this bourgeois debris, it must be with them, the proletarians, sharing all their troubles and labour. When these proletarians, who until now have followed the accomplices of the bourgeoisie, begin to struggle, to go on strike, it should not stand outside blaming them scornfully - it must, on the contrary, stay with them in their struggle, explaining relentlessly that this struggle only serves the bourgeoisie. Similarly, to say a word of truth, one is sometimes forced to stand on a pile of shit (to stand for elections) even when it means soiling honest revolutionary shoes.

Certainly, everything depends on the balance of forces in each country. And in some situations it may not be necessary to stand for elections, or to participate in strikes, but to go into battle directly. One cannot put all countries in the same bag. One must naturally look at all ways to conquer the sympathy of the proletariat; but not at the price of concessions, forgetfulness or renouncing fundamental solutions. All this must be rejected because a mere concern for immediate success leads us to abandon the real solutions, prevents us from guiding the masses, so that instead of trying to lead them, we end up copying them; not winning them over, but being towed by them.

One must never wait for others, remain immobile, because the revolution will not break out simultaneously in every country. One must not excuse one's own indecision by invoking the immaturity of the proletarian movement and still less adopt the following language:  "We are ready for the revolution and even quite strong; but the others are not ready yet; and if we overthrow our own bourgeoisie without the others doing the same, what will happen then?"

Let's suppose that the German proletariat chases out the bourgeoisie and all those who serve it. What will happen? The bourgeoisie and the social traitors will flee far from proletarian anger, turn towards France and Belgium and will entreat Poincaré and co. to settle accounts with the German proletariat. They will go as far as promising France to respect the Treaty of Versailles, perhaps offering them the Rhineland and the Ruhr to boot. That's to say that they will act as the Russian bourgeoisie and its Social Democratic allies did and will do again. Naturally Poincaré will rejoice in such good business:  saving Germany from its proletariat and saving, at the same time, Soviet Russia for the thieves of the entire world. Unfortunately for Poincaré and co., as soon as the workers and peasants who compose the army understand that it is a question of helping the German bourgeoisie and its allies against the German proletariat, then they will turn their arms against their own masters, against Poincaré himself. The latter, in order to save his own skin and that of the French bourgeoisie, will recall his troops, abandon the poor German bourgeoisie with its Socialist allies to their fate, and do so even if the German proletariat tear up the Treaty of Versailles. Poincaré, chased from the Rhine and the Ruhr, will proclaim a peace without annexation or indemnity on the principle of self-determination of the peoples. It will not be difficult for Poincaré to come to an understanding with Cuno and the fascists; but a Germany run by workers' councils will break their backs.  When you have force at your disposal, you have to use it and not go round in circles.

Another danger threatens the German revolution; it is the dispersal of its forces. In the interests of the proletarian world revolution, the whole revolutionary proletariat must unite its efforts. If the victory of the proletariat is unthinkable without a decisive rupture and merciless combat against the enemies of the working class, the social traitors of the Second International who militarily repress the proletarian revolutionary movement in their - so-called free - country, this same victory is unthinkable without the joining of all the forces which have the aim of the communist revolution and the dictatorship of the proletariat. That is why we, the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik) whom we count, organisationally and ideologically, among the parties adhering to the 3rd International, look towards honest revolutionary communist proletarians by appealing to them to unite their forces for the last and decisive battle. We address ourselves to all the parties of the 3rd International as to those of the 4th Communist Workers' International,[7] as well as particular organisations which do not belong to any of these Internationals but who pursue our common aim in order to appeal to them to constitute a united front for the combat and victory.

The initial phase has drawn to a close. The Russian proletariat, by basing itself on the rules of the communist and proletarian revolutionary art, has brought down the bourgeoisie and its lackeys of every type and nuance (socialist-revolutionaries, Mensheviks, etc.) who defended it with so much zeal. And, although much weaker than the German proletariat, it has, as we see, repelled all the attacks that the world bourgeoisie led against it, attacks incited by the bourgeoisie, landlords and Socialists of Russia.

It is now incumbent on the proletariat of the West to act, to bring together its own forces and begin the struggle for power. It would evidently be dangerous to close one's eyes to the dangers from within which threaten Soviet Russia, the October revolution and the world revolution. At this time the Soviet Union is going through its most difficult moments: it faces so many deficiencies, and of such a gravity, that they could become fatal for the Russian proletariat and the entire world proletariat. These deficiencies derive from the weaknesses of the Russian working class and those of the world workers' movement. The Russian proletariat is not yet up to opposing the tendencies which, on one side lead to the bureaucratic degeneration of the NEP and, on the other, put in great danger, as much from the inside as from the outside, the conquests of the Russian proletarian revolution.

The proletariat of the entire world is directly and immediately interested in the conquests of the October revolution being defended against all threats. The existence of a country like Russia as the base of the world communist revolution already signifies a guarantee of victory, and as a consequence the avant-garde of the international proletarian army - the communists of every country - must firmly express the still largely mute opinion of the proletariat on the deficiencies and the harm suffered by Soviet Russia and its army of communist proletarians, the RCP (Bolshevik).

The Workers' Group of the RCP (B), which is the best informed of the Russian situation, means to start this work.

We are not of the opinion that we, communist proletarians, cannot talk about our faults because there are in the world social traitors and scoundrels who, as we've seen, could use what we say against Soviet Russia and communism. All these fears are without foundation. Whether our enemies are open or hidden doesn't matter at all:  they remain artisans of calamity who cannot live without being harmful to us, the proletarians and communists who want to liberate ourselves from the capitalist yoke. What will follow from this? Must we because of that keep our troubles and faults quiet, not discuss them nor take measures to eradicate them? What will occur if we let ourselves be terrorised by the social traitors and if we keep quiet? In this case things could go so far that there would no longer be the conquests of the October revolution as we remember it. This would be of great use to the social traitors and a mortal blow for the international proletarian communist movement. It is precisely in the interest of the world proletarian revolution and of the working class that we, the Workers' Group of the RCP (Bolshevik), are beginning, without trembling in front of the opinion of the social traitors, to pose the decisive question for the international and proletarian movement in its totality. We have already observed that its faults can be explained by the weaknesses of the international and Russian movement. The best help that the proletariat of other countries can give to the Russian proletariat is a revolution in their own country, or at least in one or two of the advanced countries. Even if at the present time forces are not sufficient to realise such an aim, they would, in any case, be up to helping the Russian working class to conserve the positions conquered by the October revolution, up to the point when the proletariat of other countries rise up and vanquish the enemy.

The Russian working class, weakened by the imperialist world war, the civil war and the famine, is not powerful. But, in front of the dangers which threaten it at present, it can prepare to struggle precisely because it has already gone through these dangers. It will make every effort possible to surmount them and it will succeed thanks to the help of the proletariat of other countries.

The Workers' Group of the RCP (Bolshevik) has sounded the alarm and its appeal finds a great echo in all of Soviet Russia. All those in the RCP who think along proletarian and honest lines are coming together and beginning to struggle. We will certainly succeed in awakening in the heads of all the conscious proletarians a preoccupation about the fate which awaits the conquests of the October revolution. The struggle is difficult; we are constrained to a clandestine activity:  we are operating in illegality. Our Manifesto cannot be published in Russia:  we have copied and distributed it illegally. The comrades who are suspected of belonging to our group are excluded from the party and the unions and are arrested, deported, liquidated.

At the Twelfth Conference of the RCP (Bolshevik), comrade Zinoviev announced, with the approval of the party and the Soviet bureaucrats, a new formula for stifling any criticism from the working class by saying:  "all criticism against the leadership of the RCP whether from the right or the left, is Menshevism" (Cf. his speech at the Twelfth Conference). That means that if the fundamental lines of the leadership do not appear correct to whatever communist worker and, in his proletarian simplicity, he begins to criticise them, he will be excluded from the party and the unions and handed over to the GPU (Cheka). The centre of the RCP doesn't want any criticism because it considers itself as infallible as the Roman Pope. Our concerns, the concerns of Russian workers about the destiny of the conquests of the October revolution - all that is declared counter-revolutionary. We, the Workers' Group of the RCP (Bolshevik), declare, in front of the entire world proletariat, that the Soviet Union is one of the greatest conquests of the international proletarian movement. It is precisely because of that that we raise the alarm, because the power of the soviets, the power of the proletariat, the victory of October of the Russian working class, is threatened with being transformed into a capitalist oligarchy. We declare that we will prevent with all our might the attempt to overturn the power of the soviets. We will do so even if, in the name of the power of the soviets, they arrest us and send us to prison. If the leading group of the RCP declares that our concerns about the October revolution are illegal and counter-revolutionary, you can, revolutionary proletarians of every country, and above all those of you who adhere to the 3rd International, express your decisive opinion on the basis of your knowledge of our Manifesto. Comrades, all the proletarians of Russia who are worried about these dangers which threaten the great October revolution look to you. At your meetings we want you to discuss our Manifesto and insist that your delegates to the 5th Congress of the 3rd International raise the question of fractions inside the parties and of the policy of the RCP towards the soviets. Comrades, discuss our Manifesto and make resolutions. Understand, comrades, that in this way you will help the exhausted and martyred working class of Russia to save the conquests of the October revolution.  Our October revolution is a part of the world revolution.

To work comrades!

Long live the conquests of the October revolution of the Russian proletariat!

Long live the world revolution!

* * *

Editor's note: The first two parts of the Manifesto are entitled "The character of the proletariat's class struggle" and "Dialectic of the class struggle"We have decided not to publish these here (although they are of course included in our book) insofar as they recall the vision of history and the role of the class struggle as set out by Marx, notably in the Communist Manifesto of 1848. It seems to us preferable to go directly to the part of the document which sets out the analysis elaborated by the Workers' Group of the historic period confronted by the world proletariat at that moment.

* * *

Sauls and Pauls in the Russian revolution

Any conscious worker who has learned the lessons of the revolution, saw for himself how different classes are "miraculously" transformed from Saul into Paul, from propagandists of peace into propagandists of civil war and vice versa. If one remembers the events of the last 15-20 years, they quite clearly show these transformations.

Look at the bourgeoisie, the landowners, the priests, the Socialist-Revolutionaries and the Mensheviks. Who among the priests and landowners advocated civil war before 1917? None of them. Even better, all those who advocated universal peace and the state of grace, they threw people in jail, had them shot and hanged for daring to make such propaganda. And after October? Who championed and advocated civil war with such passion? These same faithful children of Christianity:  priests, landowners, and officers.

And was the bourgeoisie, represented by the Constitutional Democrats, not formerly the partisan of the civil war against the autocracy? Remember the revolt at Vyborg. Didn't Miluikov, from the high tribune of the Provisional Government, say:  "We take up the red flag in our hands, and it will only be taken away from us when it is prised from our corpses"? True, he also pronounced very different words before the State Duma:  "This red rag that hurts all our eyes". But we can say with certainty that prior to 1905, the bourgeoisie was favourable to the civil war. And in 1917, under the Provisional Government which proclaimed with so much virulence "peace, peace, union between all the classes of society: this is the salvation of the nation!"? It was they, the bourgeoisie, the Cadets. But after October? Who continues today to scream like a fanatic:  "down with the soviets, down with Bolsheviks, war, civil war: this is the salvation of the nation!"? It is these same good masters and "revolutionary" snivellers, who now have the air of tigers.

And the Socialist-Revolutionaries? Did they not in their time assassinate Plehve, the Grand Duke Serge Alexandrovich, Bogdanovich and other pillars of the old regime? And did these violent revolutionaries not call for unity and civil peace in 1917, under the same Provisional Government? Yes, they called for it, and how! And after October? Did they remain lovers of peace? No!  They turned once again into men of violence...but r-r-reactionaries this time, and fired on Lenin. They advocate civil war.

And the Mensheviks? They were supporters of armed insurrection before 1908, of an 8 hour working day, of the requisition of landed properties, of a democratic republic and, from 1908 to 1917, joined in a sort of "class collaboration" for the freedom to organise and for legal forms of struggle against the autocracy. They were not opposed to the overthrow of the latter, but certainly not during the war, because they are patriots, even "internationalists"; before October 1917, they advocated civil peace and after October, civil war, just like the monarchists, the Cadets and the Socialist-Revolutionaries.

Is this phenomenon limited to us, the Russians? No. Before the overthrow of feudalism, the English, French, German bourgeoisies, etc, advocated and led civil war. After feudalism fell into dust and the bourgeoisie had seized power, it became the advocate for civil peace, especially with the emergence of a new contender for power, the working class, which fought it tooth and nail.

Look now where the bourgeoisie is favourable to civil war. Nowhere! Everywhere, except in Soviet Russia, it promotes peace and love. And what will its attitude be when the proletariat has taken power? Will it remain the advocate of civil peace? Will it call for unity and peace? No, it will turn into a violent propagandist for civil war and will wage this war to the limit, to the end.

And we Russian proletarians, are we an exception to this rule?

Not at all.

If you take the same year 1917, did our councils of workers' deputies become organs of civil war? Yes. Moreover, they took power. Did they want the bourgeoisie, the landowners, priests and other persons hostile to the councils to revolt against them? No. Did they want the bourgeoisie and all its big and small allies to submit without resistance? Yes, they wanted that. The proletariat was therefore for civil war before taking power, and against after its victory, for civil peace.

It's true that in all these transformations, there is plenty of historic inertia. Even in the epoch where everyone (from monarchists to Mensheviks, including the Socialist-Revolutionaries) was leading the civil war against Soviet power, this was under the slogan of "civil peace". In reality the proletariat wanted peace, but had to call again for war. Even in 1921, or in one of the circulars of the Central Committee of the RCP, one can glimpse this incomprehension of the situation:  the slogan of civil war was considered even in 1921 as an indicator of a strong revolutionary spirit. But one can see this only as an historic case which does not shake at all our point of view.

If currently in Russia, in consolidating proletarian power conquered by the revolution of October, we advocate civil peace, all honest proletarian elements must however have to unite firmly under the slogan of civil war, bloody and violent, against the world bourgeoisie.

The working class actually sees with what hysteria the exploiting layers of the population in the bourgeois countries calls for civil and universal peace, a state of grace.

We must therefore understand now that if, tomorrow, the proletariat of these bourgeois countries takes power, all today's pacifists, from the landowners to the II and II½ Internationals, will lead the civil war against the proletariat.

With all the force and energy we are capable of, we must call the proletariat of all nations to civil war, bloody and ruthless; we will sow the wind, because we want the storm. But with even more force we will make propaganda for civil and universal peace, for a state of grace, everywhere where the proletariat has triumphed and taken power.

As for the landowners, Mensheviks, Socialist-Revolutionaries of all countries, they will advocate civil peace in every country where capitalist oppression reigns, and even more cruel and bloody civil war everywhere that the proletariat has taken power.

The principal tasks for today

The development of the productive forces in all countries has reached a phase in which capitalism is itself a factor of destruction of these same forces. World War and the events that ensued, the peace of Versailles, the question of reparations, Genoa, the Hague, Lausanne, Paris and finally the occupation of the Ruhr by France, in addition to massive unemployment and the never ending wave of strikes, explicitly show that the last hour of capitalist exploitation has already arrived and the expropriators must themselves be expropriated.

The historical mission of the proletariat is to save humanity from the barbarism it has been plunged into by capitalism. And it is impossible to accomplish this by struggling for pennies, for the 8-hour working day, for the partial concessions that capitalism can grant. No, the proletariat must organise itself firmly with the aim of a decisive struggle for power.

In such a time, all propaganda in favour of strikes to improve the material conditions of the proletariat in the advanced capitalist countries is a malicious propaganda that keeps the proletariat in illusions, in the hope of a real improvement in its standard of living in capitalist society.

Advanced workers must take part in strikes and, if circumstances permit, direct them. They must propose practical demands where the proletarian mass still hopes to be able to improve its conditions by following this path; such an attitude will increase their influence within the proletariat. But they should state firmly that this is not a path to salvation, to improving conditions of life of the working class. If it is possible to organise the proletariat with a view to the decisive struggle by supporting all its conflicts with capital, this should not be rejected. It is better to get to the head of this movement and propose demands that are bold and categorical, practical and understandable to the proletariat, while explaining to it that if it does not take power, it will not be able to change its conditions of existence. Thus, for the proletariat, each strike, each conflict will be a lesson that will prove the necessity for the conquest of political power and the expropriation of the expropriators

Here the communists from all countries must adopt the same attitude as towards parliaments - they do not go there to make a positive work for legislation, but with a view to make propaganda, to work towards the destruction of these parliaments by the organised proletariat

Similarly, where there is the need to strike for a penny, for an hour, we must participate, but not to maintain hope of a real improvement in the workers' economic conditions. Instead, we must dispel these illusions, use each conflict to organise the forces of the proletariat while preparing its consciousness for the final struggle. Once, the demand for an 8 hour working day was revolutionary, now it has ceased to be in all countries where the social revolution is on the agenda.

We now turn to the issue of the united front.

* * *

The rest of the Manifesto, which will be published in future issues of the International Review, comprises the following chapter headings:

  • the socialist united front;
  • the question of the united front in countries where the proletariat is in power (workers' democracy);
  • the national question;
  • the New Economic Policy (NEP);
  • the NEP and the countryside;
  • the NEP and politics;
  • the NEP and the management of industry.

Note at the end of the document

1. Gabriel Miasnikov, a worker from the Urals, had leapt to prominence in the Bolshevik Party in 1921 when, immediately after the crucial Tenth Congress, he had called for "freedom of the press from monarchists to anarchists inclusive" (quoted in Carr, The Interregnum). Despite Lenin's attempts to dissuade him from this agitation, he refused to climb down and was expelled from the party in early 1922.  In March 1923 he joined with other militants to found the Workers' Group of the Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), and they published their Manifesto, which was distributed at the Twelfth Congress of the RCP. The group began to do illegal work amongst party and non-party workers, and seems to have had an important presence in the strike wave of summer 1923, calling for mass demonstrations and trying to politicize an essentially defensive class movement. Their activities in these strikes were enough to convince the GPU that they were a real threat; a wave of arrests of their leading militants dealt a severe blow to the group.  Nevertheless they carried on their underground work, if on a reduced scale, until the beginning of the 1930. Miasnikov's subsequent history is as follows: from 1923 to 1927 he spent most of his time in prison or exile for underground activities. Escaping from Russia in 1927 he fled to Persia and Turkey (where he was also imprisoned), eventually settling in France in 1930. During this period he was still trying to organize his group in Russia.  At the end of the war, he petitioned Stalin to permit him to return to the USSR.  From the day when he returned to his country, there was no further news of him. And with reason! After a secret judgement by a military tribunal, he was shot in a Moscow prison on 16 November 1945.


[1]. Read our article "The Communist Left and the continuity of marxism"

[2]. The ICC has already published in English and in Russian a pamphlet, The Russian Communist Left, dedicated to the study of the different expressions of the communist left in Russia. A version is also under preparation in French. The English version included the Manifesto of the Workers' Group but, since its publication, a new more complete version of this Manifesto has been unearthed in Russia. It is this latest version (originally in French) that we publish today and which will be incorporated into the future French edition.

[3]. Read our article "The Communist Left in Russia" in the International Review n°s. 8 and 9, also included in the book on the Russian left.

[4]. "Members of the party who are dissatisfied with this or that decision of the central committee, who have this or that doubt on their minds, who privately note this or that error, irregularity or disorder, are afraid to speak about it at party meetings, and are even afraid to talk about it in conversation...Nowadays it is not the party, not its broad masses, who promote and choose members of the provincial committees and of the central committee of the RCP.  On the contrary the secretarial hierarchy of the party to an ever greater extent recruits the membership of conferences and congresses which are becoming to an ever greater extent the executive assemblies of this hierarchy...The position which has been created is explained by the fact that the regime is the dictatorship of a faction inside the party...The factional regime must be abolished, and this must be done in the first instance by those who have created it; it must be replaced by a regime of comradely unity and internal party democracy."

[5]. Read the article "The Communist Left in Russia" in the International Review n°s. 8 and 9, already cited.

[6]. However, the Manifesto seems also to defend the position that the unions must become the organs of the centralisation of economic direction - the old position of the Workers' Opposition that Miasnikov had criticised in 1921.

[7]. This is the KAI (Communist Workers' International, 1921-22), founded on the initiative of the KAPD, not to be confused with the Trotskyist IVth International.


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 


Introduction to the 2nd English edition of the “Left Wing of the Communist Party of Turkey”

The purpose of this article is to introduce the new English edition of our pamphlet on the Left Wing of the Turkish Communist Party (Türkiye Komünist Partisi, TKP), which will be serialised in the following issues of the Review. The first edition of the pamphlet was published in 2008 by the Turkish group Enternasyonalist Komünist Sol (Internationalist Communist Left, EKS), which had already at the time adopted the ICC's basic positions as a statement of principle, and had begun to discuss the ICC's Platform. In 2009, EKS joined the ICC to form our organisation's section in Turkey, publishing Dünya Devrimi ("World Revolution").

This new edition of the English translation follows the publication of a new Turkish edition, which clarified some aspects of the original pamphlet with further references to original Turkish material. It also added as an appendix (for the first time in both modern Turkish and English), the 1920 founding declaration of the TKP in Ankara.

The body of the pamphlet still presents a certain difficulty for the non-Turkish reader, in that it refers to historical events which are common knowledge for any Turkish schoolchild, but are little known or not at all outside Turkey. Rather than weigh down the body of the text with explanations which would be unnecessary for the Turkish reader, we have chosen to add some explanatory notes in the English version, and to give, in this article, a general overview of the historical context which, we hope, will make it easier to for the reader to find his way through a complex period.[1]

Our historical overview will itself be divided into two parts: in the first, we will concentrate on the actual events leading up to the creation of the Turkish state, and the formation of the TKP; in the second, we will examine the debates surrounding the theoretical basis of the Comintern's policy towards national movements in the East, in particular as these are expressed in the adoption of the "Theses on the National Question" at the Comintern's Second Congress.

The fall of the Ottoman Empire

The Turkish Republic founded by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in the years following World War I was born out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire.[2] The Empire (also known as the Sublime Porte) was not a national state, but the result of a series of dynastic conquests, which - at its greatest extent in the early 17th century - spread along the North African coast as far as Algiers, across present-day Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon, and much of coastal Saudi Arabia, including the holy cities of Mecca and Medina; on the European continent, the Ottomans conquered Greece, the Balkans and much of Hungary. Ever since the reign of Selim the Excellent in the early 16th century, the Sultan had also assumed the title of Caliph, that is to say the leader of the whole Ummah, or community of Islam. Insofar as one can make an analogy with European history, the Ottoman Sultans thus combined the spiritual and temporal attributes of the Roman Emperor and the Pope.

By the 19th century however, the Ottoman Empire was coming under growing pressure from the expansionism of modern European capitalist states, leading to its gradual disintegration. Egypt broke away de facto after Napoleon invaded in 1798 and was driven out by an alliance of British and local troops; it became a British protectorate in 1882. French troops conquered Algeria in a series of bloody conflicts between 1830 and 1872, while Tunisia was made a French protectorate in 1881. Greece won its independence in 1830, after a war fought with the help of the British, French, and Russians.

This process of disintegration continued into the early 20th century. In 1908 Bulgaria declared its independence and Austria-Hungary formalised its annexation of Bosnia; in 1911 Italy invaded Libya, while in 1912 the Ottoman army was badly mauled during the First Balkan War by the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Greeks. Indeed the Sublime Porte's survival was due in part to the rivalries of the European powers, none of which could allow its rivals to profit from the Empire's collapse at their own expense. Thus France and Britain - perfectly capable, as we have seen, of despoiling the Empire for their own profit - united to protect the Ottomans against Russian advances during the Crimean War of 1853-56.

Internally, the Ottoman Empire was a hodgepodge of ethnic units whose only cohesion derived from the Sultanate and the Ottoman state itself. The Caliphate was of limited application, since the Empire included large Jewish and Christian populations, not to mention a variety of Muslim sects. Even in Anatolia - the geographical area which roughly corresponds to modern Turkey - national or ethnic unity was lacking. The majority Turkish population, largely made up of peasants farming in extremely backward conditions, lived side by side with Armenians, Kurds, Azeris, Greeks and Jews. Moreover, while some Turkish capital did exist, the great majority of the rising industrial/commercial bourgeoisie was not Turkish but Armenian, Jewish and Greek while other major economic actors were owned by French or German capital. The situation in Turkey is thus comparable to that in Tsarist Russia, where an outdated despotic state structure overlaid a civil society which, for all its backward aspects, was nonetheless integrated into world capitalism as a whole. Unlike Russia, however, the Ottoman state structure was not based on the economically dominant national bourgeoisie.

Although the Sultanate had made some attempts at reform, the experiments with limited parliamentary democracy were short-lived. More concrete results came from collaboration with Germany in the construction of railways linking Anatolia with Baghdad and the Hejaz (Mecca and Medina); these were of particular concern to the British in the years leading up to the war, since they promised to allow both Ottomans and Germans to pose a threat to the Persian oilfields (critical for supplying the British navy) on the one hand, and to Egypt and the Suez Canal (the lifeline to India) on the other. Nor was Britain any more enthusiastic about the Sultan's request for German officers to train the Ottoman army in modern strategy and tactics.

To the rising generation of nationalist revolutionaries who were to form the "Young Turk" movement, it was obvious that the Sultanate was incapable of responding to the pressure imposed by foreign imperialist powers, and building a modern, industrial state. However, the minority status (both national and religious) of the industrial and merchant classes meant that the Young Turk national revolutionary movement which founded the "Committee of Union and Progress" (CUP, in Turkish the İttihat ve Terakki Cemiyeti) in 1906 was largely made up, not from a rising industrial class, but from frustrated Turkish army officers and state officials; in its early years the CUP also received considerable support from national minorities (including from the Armenian Dashnak Party, and from the population around Salonika in what is now Greece) and, initially at least, from Avraam Benaroya's Workers' Socialist Federation. Although it was inspired by the ideas of the French revolution and the efficiency of German military organisation, it cannot properly be called nationalist since its aim was to transform and strengthen the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire. In doing so, it inevitably came into conflict with emerging nationalist movements in the Balkan states, and with Greece in particular.

Support for the CUP grew rapidly in the army, to the point where its members felt able, in 1908, to launch a successful military putsch, forcing Sultan Abdulhamit to call a parliament and accept CUP ministers into his government, which they quickly dominated. The CUP's popular base was so narrow, however, that it was rapidly forced out of power and was only able to re-establish its authority by the military occupation of the capital Istanbul; Sultan Abdulhamit was forced to abdicate and was replaced by his younger brother Mehmet V. In theory at least, the Ottoman Empire had become a constitutional monarchy, which the Young Turks hoped would open the way to the Empire's conversion into a modern capitalist state. However, the fiasco of the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) was to demonstrate all too clearly how backward the Ottoman Empire was in comparison to the more modern powers.

The "Young Turk revolution", as it became known, thus set the pattern for the creation of the Turkish Republic and indeed for states that were to emerge later from the collapse of the colonial empires: a capitalist state established by the army, as the only force in society with sufficient cohesion to prevent the country from falling apart.

It is unnecessary to give an account of the Ottoman Empire's misadventures following its entry into World War I on Germany's side;[3] suffice it to say that by 1919 the Empire was defeated and dismembered: its Arabian possessions had been divided between the British and the French, while the capital itself was occupied by Allied troops. The Greek ruling class, which had entered the war on the Allied side, now saw an opportunity to realise their Megali Idea: a "Greater Greece" which would incorporate into the Greek state those parts of Anatolia which had been Greek in the days of Alexander - essentially the Aegean coast including the major port of Izmir and the Black Sea coastal area known as Pontus.[4] Since these areas were also largely occupied by Turks, such a policy could only be carried out by a programme of pogroms and ethnic cleansing. In May 1919, with tacit British support, the Greek army occupied Izmir. The enfeebled Ottoman government, entirely dependent on the unreliable and rapacious goodwill of the victorious British and French, was incapable of resisting. Resistance was to come, not from the discredited Sultanate in Istanbul, but from the central Anatolian plateau. It is here that "Kemalism" entered the historical stage.

Almost simultaneously with the Greek occupation of Izmir, Mustafa Kemal Pasha - better known to history as Kemal Atatürk - left Istanbul for Samsun on the Black Sea coast. As Inspector of the 9th Army, his official duties were to maintain order and to oversee the dismantlement of the Ottoman armies in accordance with the ceasefire agreement with the Allies. His real purpose was to galvanise national resistance to the occupying powers, and in the years to follow Mustafa Kemal was to become the leading figure in Turkey's first truly national movement which led, by 1922, to the abolition of the Sultanate and the liquidation of the Ottoman Empire, the expulsion of Greek armies from Western Anatolia and the creation of today's Turkish Republic.

The year 1920 saw the opening of Turkey's first Grand National Assembly in Ankara. It can also be seen as the moment that events in Russia began once again to play an important role in Turkish history, and vice versa.

The two years following the October Revolution had been desperate ones for the new revolutionary power: the Red Army had had to fight off direct intervention by the capitalist powers, and to wage a bloody civil war against the White armies of Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin on the Don (the north-eastern Black Sea region), and Wrangel in the Crimea. By 1920, the situation was beginning to appear more stable: "Soviet Republics" had been or were about to be created, in Tashkent, Bokhara, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia. British troops had been forced to evacuate Baku (the heart of the Caspian Sea oil industry and the region's only real proletarian centre), but remained an ever-present threat in Persia and India. In these circumstances, the national question was of immediate and pressing importance to the Soviet power and to the workers' movement which found its highest political expression in the Communist International (CI): were the national movements a force for reaction or a potential aid to the revolutionary power, as the peasants had been in Russia? How should the workers' movement behave in regions where the workers were still in the minority? What could be expected of nationalist movements like the Grand National Assembly in Ankara, which at least seemed to share a common enemy with the RSFSR[5] in British and French imperialism?

The debate on the national question

In 1920, these questions lay at the heart of the debates both at the CI's 2nd Congress, which adopted "Theses on the National Question", and at the "First Congress of the Peoples of the East", better known as the Baku Congress. These events formed, so to speak, the theoretical context for events in Turkey, and it is to these that we will now turn our attention.

Presenting the "Theses on the National Question" to the CI Congress, Lenin declared that "the most important, the fundamental idea underlying our theses (...) is the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations [...] In this age of imperialism, it is particularly important for the proletariat and the Communist International to establish the concrete economic facts and to proceed from concrete realities, not from abstract postulates, in all colonial and national problems".[6] Lenin's insistence that the national question could only be understood in the context of the "age of imperialism" (what we would call the epoch of capitalism's decadence) was shared by all the participants in the debates that followed. Many however, did not share Lenin's conclusions and tended to pose the national question in terms similar to those used by Rosa Luxemburg:[7] "In the era of [...] unrestrained imperialism there can be no more national wars. National interests serve only as a means of deceiving, making the working masses serviceable to their mortal enemy, imperialism [...] No suppressed nation can reap freedom and independence from the politics of imperialist states [...] Small nations, whose ruling classes are appendages of their class comrades in the large powers, are merely pawns in the imperialist game of the major powers and are abused as tools during the war, just like the working masses, only to be sacrificed to capitalist interests after the war".[8]

If we look at the debates on the national question in the CI, we can see three different positions emerging.

Lenin's position and the "Theses on the National Question"

Lenin's position is necessarily profoundly influenced by the situation of Soviet Russia on the world arena: "in the current world situation, after the imperialist war, the mutual relations between states, the world system of states, is determined by the struggle of the smaller number of imperialist nations against the Soviet movement and the Soviet powers with Soviet Russia at their head [...] It is only from this standpoint that the political questions of the Communist Parties, not only in the civilised but also in the backward countries, can be posed and answered correctly".[9] At times, this position could come dangerously close to making the proletarian revolution dependent on the national revolution in the East: "The socialist revolution will not be merely, or mainly, the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat of each country against its own bourgeoisie - no, it will be the struggle of all colonies and countries oppressed by imperialism, of all dependent countries, against imperialism".[10]

The danger of this position is precisely that it tends to make the workers' movement in any one country, and the Comintern's attitude to that movement, dependent not on the interests of the international working class and the relations between workers of different countries but on the state interests of Soviet Russia.[11] It leaves unanswered the question of what to do when the two conflict. To take one very concrete example: what should be the attitude of Turkish workers and communists in the war between Mustafa Kemal's nationalist movement and the Greek occupying forces? Should it be the revolutionary defeatism adopted by the left wing in both the Greek and Turkish communist parties, or should it be Soviet Russia's military and diplomatic help to the nascent Turkish state, with a view to defeating Greece on the grounds that the latter is a tool of British imperialism?

Manabendra Nath Roy's position

During the Comintern's 2nd Congress, MN Roy[12] presented his "Supplementary Theses on the national question" which were debated in committee and presented together with Lenin's Theses, for adoption by the Congress. For Roy, capitalism's continued survival depended on "super-profits" from the colonies: "European capitalism draws its strength in the main not so much from the industrial countries of Europe as from its colonial possessions. Its existence depends on the control of extensive colonial markets and a broad field of opportunities for exploitation [...] The super-profits made in the colonies forms one of the main sources of the resources of contemporary capitalism. The European working class will only succeed in overthrowing the capitalist order once this source has finally been stopped up".[13] This pushed Roy towards a view of the world revolution as dependent on the revolution of the working masses of Asia: "The East is awakening: and who knows if the formidable tide, that will sweep away the capitalist structure of Western Europe, may not come from there. This is not idle fancy, nor is it mere sentimental brooding. That the final success of the Social Revolution in Europe will depend greatly, if not entirely, on a simultaneous upheaval of the labouring masses of the Orient, can be proved scientifically".[14] In Roy's view, however, the revolution in Asia depended on the proletariat in alliance with the peasantry. This he saw as being incompatible with support for the democratic nationalist movement: "The struggle to overthrow foreign domination in the colonies does not therefore mean underwriting the national aims of the national bourgeoisie but much rather smoothing the path to liberation for the proletariat of the colonies [...] Two movements can be discerned which are growing further and further apart with every day that passes. One of them is the bourgeois-democratic nationalist movement, which pursues the aim of political liberation with the conservation of the capitalist order; the other is the struggle of the propertyless peasants for their liberation from every kind of exploitation".[15] Roy's objections led to the removal from Lenin's draft theses of the idea of support for "bourgeois-democratic" movements; it was replaced by support for "national-revolutionary" movements. The rub lay, however, in the fact that the distinction between the two remained extremely unclear in practice. What exactly was a "national revolutionary" movement that was not also "bourgeois-democratic"? In what way exactly was it "revolutionary" and how could such a movement's "national" characteristics be reconciled with the demands of an international proletarian revolution? These questions were never clarified by the Comintern and their inherent contradictions remained unresolved.

Sultanzade's position

A third, left, position was perhaps expressed most clearly by Sultanzade,[16] the delegate from the newly-founded Persian CP. Sultanzade rejected both the idea that national revolutions could free themselves from dependence on imperialism, and that the world revolution depended on events in the East: "Does [...] the fate of communism throughout the world depend on the victory of the social revolution in the East, as comrade Roy assures you? Certainly not. Many comrades in Turkestan are caught up in this error [...] Let us assume that the communist revolution has begun in India. Would the workers of that country be able to withstand the attack by the bourgeoisie of the entire world without the help of a big revolutionary movement in England and Europe? Of course not. The suppression of the revolution in China and Persia is clear proof of the fact [...] If one were to try to proceed according to the Theses in countries which already have ten or more years of experience [...] it would mean driving the masses into the arms of counter-revolution. The task is to create and maintain a purely communist movement in opposition to the bourgeois-democratic one. Any other judgment of the facts could lead to regrettable results".[17] That Sultanzade's voice was not an isolated one can be seen from the fact that similar views were being expressed elsewhere. In his report to the Baku Congress, Pavlovitch (who according to some sources[18] worked on the report together with Sultanzade) declares that if "the Irish separatists succeed in their aim and realise their cherished ideal of an independent Irish people. The very next day, independent Ireland would fall under the yoke of American capital or of the French Bourse, and, perhaps, within a year or two Ireland would be fighting against Britain or some other states in alliance with one of the world predators, for markets, for coal-mines, for iron-mines, for bits of territory in Africa, and once again hundreds of thousands of British, Irish, American and other workers would die in this war [...] The example [...] of bourgeois Poland, which is now behaving as a hangman towards the national minorities on its own territory, and serving as the gendarme of international capitalism for struggle against the workers and peasants of Russia; or the example of the Balkan states - Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro, Greece - squabbling amongst themselves over the division of the booty and over their desire to annex to their own territory some nation which was only yesterday under the Turkish yoke; and a whole number of other facts of the same sort show that the formation of national states in the East, in which power has passed from the foreign rulers who have been driven out into the hands of the local capitalists and landlords, does not in itself constitute a great step forward in the matter of improving the position of the popular masses.

"Within the framework of the capitalist system, any newly-formed state which does not express the interests of the toiling masses but serves the interests of the bourgeoisie is a new instrument of oppression and coercion, a new factor of war and violence. [...] If the struggle in Persia, India and Turkey were to lead merely to the capitalists and landlords of those countries, with their national parliaments and senates, coming to power, the masses of the people would have gained nothing. Every newly-formed state would be rapidly drawn, by the very course of events and the iron logic of the laws of capitalist economy, into the vicious circle of militarism and imperialist politics, and after a few decades we should witness another' world war [...] for the interests of the French, German, British, Indian, Chinese, Persian and Turkish bankers and factory-owners [...] Only the dictatorship of the proletariat and, in general, of the working masses, liberated from foreign oppression and having overthrown capital completely, will provide the backward countries with a guarantee that these countries will not, like the states formed from fragments of the Austro-Hungarian empire and Tsarist Russia Poland, White Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Georgia, Armenia - or formed from fragments of Turkey - Venizelist Greece and the rest be new instruments for war, plunder and coercion."[19]

Grigori Safarov (who was to play an important part in the development of the TKP) put the problem more clearly in his Problemy Vostoka: " must be emphasized that only the development of proletarian revolution in Europe makes the victory of agrarian-peasant revolution in the East possible [...] The imperialist system of states has no place for peasant republics. Numerically insignificant cadres of local proletarians and semi-proletarian rural and urban elements can carry with them broad peasant masses into the battle against imperialism and feudal elements, but this requires an international revolutionary situation which would enable them to ally themselves with the proletariat of the advanced countries".[20]

To be sure, Pavlovitch's report, which we have cited, is not a model of clarity and contains a number of contradictory ideas. Elsewhere in the report, for example, he refers to "revolutionary Turkey" ("The Greek occupation of Thrace and Adrianople is aimed at isolating revolutionary Turkey and Soviet Russia from the revolutionary Balkans"). He even goes so far as to take up a suggestion from "the Turkish comrades" (presumably the group around Mustafa Suphi) "that the question of the Dardanelles should be decided by the states bordering on the Black Sea, excluding participation by Wrangel[21] and the Entente", and continues that "We warmly welcome this idea, the realisation of which would be a first and decisive step towards a federation of all the peoples and countries whose territories adjoin the Black Sea".[22] This only goes to show that the revolutionaries of the day were confronting, in practice and in conditions of extreme difficulty, new problems which had no easy solutions. In such a situation, a certain degree of confusion was probably inevitable. Let us remark in passing, though, that the "left" positions are being put forward, not by Western intellectuals or armchair revolutionaries, but precisely by those who, on the ground, would have to put the Comintern's policy into practice.

The national question in practice

It should be emphasized that the positions we have outlined here, rather schematically, were not set in stone. The Comintern was confronted with problems and questions that were wholly new: capitalism as a whole was still at the watershed between its period of triumphant ascendancy and the "epoch of wars and revolutions" (to use the CI's expression); the opposition between bourgeoisie and proletariat was finding expression in an opposition between the Soviet power and capitalist states; and communists in the East were having to "adapt [themselves] to specific conditions of a sort not met with in European countries".[23]

It has to be said that in confronting these new questions, the Comintern's leaders could sometimes reveal a surprising naivety. Here is Zinoviev, speaking at the Baku Congress: "We can support a democratic policy such as has now taken shape in Turkey and such as will perhaps tomorrow make its appearance in other countries. We support and will support national movements like those in Turkey, Persia, India and China [...] the task of this [current national] movement is to help the East free itself from British imperialism. But we have a task of our own to carry out, no less great - to help the toilers of the East in their struggle against the rich, and here and now to help them build their own Communist organisations, [...] to prepare them for a real labour revolution."[24] Zinoviev was doing no more than echoing Lenin's report on the national question to the Comintern's 2nd Congress: "as communists we will only support the bourgeois freedom movements in the colonial countries if these movements are really revolutionary and if their representatives are not opposed to us training and organising the peasantry in a revolutionary way."[25]

In effect, the policy that Zinoviev is putting forth - and which the Soviet power at first tried to put into effect - assumes that the national movements will accept the Soviet power as an ally, while at the same time allowing the communists a free hand in organising the workers to overthrow them. But nationalist leaders like Mustafa Kemal were not idiots, nor were they blind to their own interests. Kemal - to take the Turkish example - was prepared to let the communists organise only insofar as he needed the support of Soviet Russia against the British and the Greeks. Kemal's determination to keep the popular enthusiasm for communism - which certainly existed and was gaining ground however confusedly - firmly under control, even led to the bizarre creation of an "official" Communist Party whose central committee included the leading generals of the Turkish army! This CP was at least perfectly clear (indeed a good deal clearer than the Comintern) on the radical incompatibility between nationalism and communism, and on the implications of this incompatibility. As the "official" CP's organ Anadoluda Yeni Gün put it: "At the present moment, the program of communist ideas is not only harmful, but even ruinous, for the country. When a soldier realizes that there does not have to be a fatherland, he will not have to go out to defend it; hearing that there does not have to be hatred of nations, he will not go out and fight the Greeks".[26] The Party ideologue Mahmud Esat Bozkurt declared unambiguously that "Communism is not an ideal, but a means for the Turks. The ideal for the Turks is the unity of the Turkish nation".[27]

In short, the Soviet power would be an acceptable ally for the nationalists only insofar as it acted as an expression, not of proletarian internationalist but of Russian national interests.

The consequences of the Comintern's policy towards Turkey were spelled out by Agis Stinas in his Memoirs published in 1976: "The Russian government and the Communist International had characterised the war led by Kemal as a war of national liberation and had ‘in consequence' judged it as progressive, and for that reason supported it politically and diplomatically and sent him advisors, arms and money. If we consider that Kemal was fighting a foreign invasion to liberate the Turkish soil, his struggle had a character of national liberation. But was there anything progressive about it? We believed this and supported it then. But how can we defend the same thesis today? For something to be progressive in our era and to be considered as progressive it must contribute to the raising of the class consciousness of the worker masses, to developing their capacity to struggle for their own emancipation. What has the creation of the modern Turkish state contributed to this? Kemal (...) threw the Turkish Communists into the jails where he hanged them, and then finally turned his back on Russia, establishing cordial relations with the imperialists and giving himself the job of protecting their interests. The correct policy, in line with the interests of the proletarian revolution, would have been to call on the Greek and Turkish soldiers to fraternise, and the popular masses to struggle together, without letting themselves be stopped by national, racial and religious differences, for the republic of workers' and peasants' councils in Asia Minor. Independently of the policy of Russia and the objectives of Kemal, the duty of Greek Communists was definitely one of intransigent struggle against the war."[28]

The importance of the Turkish Left's experience lies not in its theoretical heritage but in the fact that the struggle between nationalism and communism in the East was played out in Turkey to the bitter end, not in debate but on the ground, in the class struggle.[29] The Turkish Left's fight against opportunism within the Party, and against the repression of the Kemalist state, which dipped its hands in workers' blood from its very birth, mercilessly exposed the failings and ambiguities of the Comintern's Theses on the National Question. The struggle of Manatov, Haçioglu and their comrades, belongs to the internationalist heritage of the workers' movement.

Jens, 8-6-10

[1]. In doing so, we have relied extensively on Andrew Mango's recent biography of Kemal Atatürk, and on EH Carr's history of the Russian Revolution (1950 edition), in particular the chapter in Volume I on "Self-Determination in practice". The French speaking reader can usefully consult the long critical article published in Programme Communiste n°100 (December 2009, ), which, despite its inevitable Bordigist blind spots, contains some useful historical material.

[2]. The fact that Turkey as such did not exist for much of the period covered by the pamphlet goes some way to explain why the EKS' original Preface describes Turkey as an "obscure Middle Eastern country"; for the rest, the undoubted ignorance of Turkish affairs by the vast majority of the population in the English speaking world thoroughly justifies the expression. Amusingly, Programme Communiste prefers to attribute it to "the prejudices of a citizen of one of the 'great powers' that dominates the world" on the wholly unfounded assumption that the Preface is written by the ICC. Should we conclude that the PCI's own prejudices leave it unable to imagine that an uncompromisingly internationalist position should be adopted by a member of what they like to call the "olive-skinned peoples"?

[3]. Amid all the crimes perpetrated during World War I, the massacre of the Armenians nonetheless deserves special mention. Out of fear that the Christian Armenian population would collaborate with the Russians, the CUP government and its War Minister Enver Pasha undertook a programme of mass deportations and killings leading to the extermination of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

[4]. See

[5]. Russian Socialist Federation of Soviet Republics.

[6]. The Second Congress of the Communist International, Vol. 1, New Park, p.109. Also to be found on the web site.

[7]. In its critique of the EKS pamphlet, Programme Communiste tries to use Lenin against Luxemburg, even going so far as to claim that Luxemburg, under the name of "Junius" "puts forward... a national programme of the defence of the fatherland!" It is true that Luxemburg, like most of her contemporaries including Lenin, was not always free of ambiguities and outmoded references to the national question as it had been treated during the 19th century by Marx and Engels, and by the Social-Democracy more generally. We have already pointed out these ambiguities in International Review n°12 (1978), where we defended Lenin's critique of them in his article on the Junius pamphlet. It is also true that a correct economic analysis does not lead automatically to correct political positions (any more than an inadequate economic analysis invalidates correct positions of political principle). Programme Communiste, however, fails miserably to come up to Lenin's standard when they shamelessly truncate Luxemburg's words in order to avoid putting before their readers what her so-called "national programme" actually consisted of: "Yes, socialists should defend their country in great historical crises, and here lies the great fault of the German social democratic Reichstag group. When it announced on the fourth of August, "in this hour of danger, we will not desert our fatherland," it denied its own words in the same breath. For truly it has deserted its fatherland in its hour of greatest danger. The highest duty of the social democracy toward its fatherland demanded that it expose the real background of this imperialist war, that it rend the net of imperialist and diplomatic lies that covers the eyes of the people. It was their duty to speak loudly and clearly, to proclaim to the people of Germany that in this war victory and defeat would be equally fatal, to oppose the gagging of the fatherland by a state of siege, to demand that the people alone decide on war and peace, to demand a permanent session of parliament for the period of the war, to assume a watchful control over the government by parliament, and over parliament by the people, to demand the immediate removal of all political inequalities, since only a free people can adequately govern its country, and finally, to oppose to the imperialist war, based as it was upon the most reactionary forces in Europe, the program of Marx, of Engels, and Lassalle." (

[8]. "Either/Or", in Rosa Luxemburg's Selected Political Writings edited by D Howard, p.349. This is not to say that those delegates who echoed some of Luxemburg's positions could be described as "Luxemburgist", especially since there is no clear evidence that Luxemburg's writings were known to them.

[9]. Lenin, in The Second Congress of the Communist International, op. cit.

[10]. Lenin's report to the Second Congress of the Communist Organisations of the Peoples of the East, November 1918, cited in Marxism and Asia, Carrère d'Encausse and Schram.

[11]. A striking example of the dominance of Russian state interests can be seen in the Soviet power's attitude to the movement in Guilan (Persia). A study of these events is outside the scope of the present article, but interested readers can find some of the details in Vladimir Genis' study Les Bolcheviks au Guilan, published in Cahiers du Monde russe, July-September 1999.

[12]. Manabendra Nath Roy (1887 - 1954), born Narendra Nath Bhattacharya and popularly known as M. N. Roy, was a Bengali Indian revolutionary, internationally known political theorist and activist. He was a founder of the Communist Parties in India and in Mexico. He began his political activity on the extreme wing of Indian nationalism, but moved towards communist positions during a stay in New York during World War I. He fled to Mexico to avoid the attentions of the British secret service and took part in the formation of the Communist Party there. He was invited to attend the Comintern's 2nd Congress and collaborated with Lenin in formulating the Theses on the National Question. See the Wikipedia entry on Roy at

[13]. Roy's "Supplementary Theses" in 2nd Congress, op. cit.

[14]. "The awakening of the East", 1920:

[15]. "Supplementary Theses".

[16]. Sultanzade was in fact of Armenian origin: his real name was Avetis Mikailian. He was born in 1890 into a poor peasant family in Marageh (North-West Persia). He joined the Bolsheviks in 1912, probably in St Petersburg. He worked for the CI in Baku and Turkestan, and was one of the main organisers of the Persian CP's first congress in Anzali in June 1920. He was present at the 2nd Congress of the Comintern as delegate of the Persian party. He remained on the left of the CI, and opposed to the "nationalist leaders" of the East (such as Kemal); he was also profoundly critical of the Comintern's so-called "experts" on Persia and the East. He died in Stalin's purges some time between 1936 and 1938. See Cosroe Chaqeri's study on Sultanzade in Iranian Studies, spring-summer 1984.

[17]. 2nd Congress, op. cit., pp.135-6.

[18]. See Cosroe Chaqeri, op.cit. In Cahiers du Monde russe, 40/3, July-September 1999, Vladimir Genis mentions a report drawn up jointly by Pavlovitch and Sultanzade, at Lenin's request following the Comintern's 2nd Congress, on "the objectives of the communist party in Persia". The report proposes to undertake massive propaganda "for the complete elimination of private property and for the transfer of land to the peasants, since the landlord class cannot support the revolution either against the Shah, or even against the British". 

[19]. It is significant that he poses things in these terms. See

[20]. Cited in Marxism and Asia, op.cit. Emphasis in the original.

[21]. Wrangel was one of the counter-revolutionary generals whose military campaigns against the revolution were financed by the major powers - in Wrangel's case in particular by the French.

[22]. Op. cit.

[23]. Lenin, speaking to the Congress of Communist Organisations of Peoples of the East. Cited in Marxism and Asia, p168.


[25]. Op. cit.

[26]. Cited in George S Harris, The Origins of Communism in Turkey, p.82.

[27]. Ibid.

[28]. Stinas, (our emphasis). For a brief summary of Stinas' memoirs (unfortunately not available in full in English), see our article in International Review n°72 ( ).

[29]. As the pamphlet puts it, "The left wing of the TKP was a movement shaped around opposition to the national liberation movement for practical reasons because of its terrible consequences for the workers, bringing them only pain and death". Both EKS when the pamphlet was written, and the ICC, were and are well aware that the Turkish Left does not occupy the same place in the theoretical and organisational development of the Communist Left as the Italian Left, for example. This is why the pamphlet is titled "The left wing of the TKP" rather than "The Turkish Communist Left". Apparently this distinction is not clear to Programme Communiste. But then Programme Communiste tends to treat the Communist Left as their personal property, claiming that only the Italian Left "placed itself on the basis of orthodox marxism" ("orthodox marxism" is itself a ludicrous notion which is entirely - dare we say so - unmarxist). Programme Communiste then goes into a long discussion about all the different currents, right and left, in the "young communist movement" and very learnedly informs us that they could be "right" or "left" depending on the changes in political line in the Comintern, citing Zinoviev's characterisation of Bordiga in 1924. But why is no mention made of Lenin's pamphlet written against "Left-Wing Communism", specifically in Italy, Germany, Holland, and Britain? Unlike Programme Communiste, Lenin at least had no difficulty in seeing that there was something in common among the "Left Wing Communists" - even if, of course, we do not agree with his description of Left Communism as a "childhood illness"!

Historic events: 


Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 


International Review no.143 - 4th Quarter 2010

This issue begins with Capitalism is a bankrupt system that must be overthrown, which addresses the damage being done at the levels of the economy and the environment, as well as the carnage wreaked by war and the generalised chaos engendered by a system in its death throes. This question is taken up in more historical depth in The age of catastrophes, the eighth part of our series on the decadence of capitalism.

As the deepening of the economic crisis pushes the bourgeoisie to increase its austerity attacks on the working class, and the working class begins to enter the struggle - though with difficulties - it is vital to recall the history of its past struggles. In the second part of the Hot Autumn in Italy, we analyse how the bourgeoisie was able to recuperate the situation in 1968-69, in particular the weaknesses and confusions present within the minorities of the class at the time.

Even further back in the collective memory of the working class stands the shining torch of the Russian Revolution that remains a rich vein of lessons for the working class. The sixth part of the series What are workers' councils? looks back over the period 1917-21 and returns to the perennial question of why the Russian Revolution began to degenerate. The final article in this issue returns to the debates at the Third Congress of the Third international where the Russian left communist Workers' Group published its Manifesto, the second part of which took up the questions of the 'socialist' united front, the Theses of the Executive of the Communist International and the united front in countries where the proletariat has power.

Economic debacle, “natural” catastrophes, imperialist chaos... Capitalism is a bankrupt system that must be overthrown

Since the crisis of the financial system in 2008 it seems nothing can hide the depth of the capitalism’s historic crisis. Attacks on the working class escalate, poverty increases, imperialist tensions sharpen, hundreds of millions are malnourished, natural catastrophes grow more deadly. The bourgeoisie itself cannot deny the scale of the difficulties nor pretend that it can provide a better future. It concedes that the present capitalist crisis is the most serious since the thirties and that we will have to “learn to live with” the evil of worsening poverty. But the bourgeoisie has a strong capacity to adapt: if it has to admit - partly because of the evidence and partly out of political calculation - that things are getting bad and not about to improve, it knows how to present the problems without implicating the capitalist system as a whole. The banks are bankrupt and dragging down the world economy? The traders are to blame! Certain countries are so indebted that they cannot pay? Corrupt governments! War ravages the planet? Lack of political will! Environmental catastrophes and their victims are increasing? Nature's fault! Whatever differences exist in the many analyses of the bourgeoisie, they all have a common thread: they denounce this or that form of governance but not capitalism as a mode of production. In reality all the calamities suffered by the working class are the result of contradictions which are strangling society whatever the mode of government, deregulated or statist, democratic or dictatorial. To better camouflage the bankruptcy of its system the bourgeoisie also pretends that the economy is recovering slightly after the crisis of 2008. In fact this crisis is far from over. It expresses the gravity of the historic crisis of capitalism.

Capitalism sinks into crisis

The bourgeoisie is occasionally happy about the positive perspective announced by economic indicators that are beginning to show a timid growth. But behind this “good news” the reality is very different. In order to avoid the catastrophic scenario of the thirties the bourgeoisie has spent billions in support of the banks and put Keynesian measures in place. These measures consist of lowering the base rates of the central banks which determine the price of credit and the state paying the cost of economic recovery, usually through debt. Such policies are supposed to bring about strong growth. But what is striking today is the extreme weakness of world growth considering the astronomic sums spent and the vigour of inflationary measures. The United States thus finds itself in a situation that the bourgeois economists, lacking the benefit of a Marxist analysis, cannot understand: the American state is in debt by several hundred billion dollars and the base rate of the Federal Reserve is close to zero; but growth was only 1.6% in 2010, less than the 3.7% expected. As the American case illustrates, if the bourgeoisie has momentarily avoided the worst by massive indebtedness, the recovery hasn't happened. Incapable of understanding that the capitalist mode of production is transitory, bourgeois economists don't see the evidence: Keynesianism has proved its historic failure since the 1970s when the contradictions of capitalism proved to be insurmountable even with the trick of debt.

Capitalism has survived with difficulty for some decades because of the prodigious expansion of debt in order to create an artificial market to absorb a part of its chronic overproduction. But capitalist debt is like opium: the more it is used the bigger the dose required. In other words the life belt with which capitalism has kept its head above water finally deflated in 2008.

The sheer size of budget deficits adds to the risk of bankruptcy of numerous countries, in particular Greece, Italy, Ireland, and Spain. All countries are reduced to governing from day to day, changing their economic policies from recovery to austerity in response to events, without being able to offer any lasting improvement. The state, the last resort against the historic crisis of capitalism, is no longer able to hide its impotence.

Everywhere in the world the attacks on the working class are reflected in the growing unemployment rate. The governments, whether of the right or left, are imposing reforms and budgetary cuts on the proletariat with an unprecedented brutality. In Spain, civil service workers have seen their wages cut by 5% this year by the Socialist government of Zapatero, which already promised a freeze in 2011. In Greece, the average retirement age has increased by 14 years while pensions are frozen until 2012. In Ireland, which the bourgeoisie recently vaunted for its dynamism, the official rate of unemployment has risen to 14% while the wages of state employees have been lightened by 5-15% and the dole and family credits reduced.

According to the International Labour Organisation the number of unemployed in the world has gone from 30 million in 2007 to 210 million today.[1] Behind the austerity plans that are hypocritically called reforms, and behind the redundancies and factory closures, entire families slide into poverty. In the United States, nearly 44 million people live below the poverty line according to the report by the Census Bureau, a rise of 6.3 million in two years. This must be added to the three preceding years that showed a sharp increase in poverty. The decade has been marked in the US by a strong reduction in purchasing power.

It is not only in the “rich countries” that the crisis creates poverty. Recently the Food and Agriculture Organisation was proud to observe a decline in 2010 of the number of malnourished particularly in Asia (578 million) and in Africa (239 million) out of a total of 925 million throughout the world. What these statistics don’t reveal immediately is that this figure is larger than that published in 2008 before the effects of speculative inflation in the price of food that provoked a series of riots in numerous countries. The significant decline in agricultural prices has indeed modestly “reduced hunger in the world” but the tendency over several years, independently of the immediate economic conjuncture, is undoubtedly toward an increase. Moreover the heatwaves in Russia, Eastern Europe and recently in Latin America have seriously reduced world harvests which, in the context of price rises, will inevitably lead to greater malnutrition next year. So it is not only at the economic level that capitalist bankruptcy is expressed. Climatic instability and the bourgeoisie’s management of environmental catastrophes are a growing cause of death and destitution.

Capitalism destroys the planet

This summer the world’s population has been subject to violent catastrophes: fires have consumed Russia and Portugal and numerous other countries; devastating floods have drowned Pakistan, India, Nepal and China in mud. In the spring the Gulf of Mexico suffered its worst ever ecological catastrophe after the explosion of an oil platform. The list of catastrophes in 2010 is still longer. Their increase and severity is no accident because capitalism has a very heavy responsibility both for their origins and management.

Recently the rupture of the badly maintained reservoir of an aluminium factory in Hungary caused an industrial and ecological catastrophe: more than a million cubic meters of toxic “red mud” spilled out around the factory causing several deaths and many injuries. Now, to “minimise the impact” of this pollution the bosses either poured millions of tons of red mud into the Danube or into an immense basin, when the technology has existed for a long time to recycle such effluent, in particular the waste from construction or horticulture.

The destruction of the planet by the bourgeoisie is not limited however to the innumerable industrial catastrophes every year. According to scientists global warming plays a major role in the increase of extreme climatic events. “These events will reproduce and intensify in a climate affected by the pollution of greenhouse gases” according to the vice president of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. With good reason: from 1997 to 2006, when the temperature of the planet continued to climb, the number of devastating catastrophes grew by 60% in relation to the preceding decade, bringing in their wake more and more victims. From now to 2015 the number of victims of meteorological catastrophes will increase by more than 50%.

While the scientists of oil companies may claim that global warming is not the result of the massive pollution of the atmosphere, the scientific research as a whole shows a clear correlation between greenhouse gas emissions and global warming and the increase of natural catastrophes. However the scientists are mistaken when they claim that a little political will from the governments can change things. Capitalism is incapable of limiting greenhouse gas emissions because it must obey its own laws, those of profit, of cheap production and of competition. The necessary submission to these laws means that the bourgeoisie pollutes with its heavy industry, with the unnecessary transportation of goods for thousands of miles, amongst a host of examples.

The responsibility of capitalism for the scale of these catastrophes is not limited to atmospheric pollution and the unstable climate. The systematic destruction of ecosystems like massive deforestation, storing waste in natural drainage zones, anarchic urbanisation even in dried up riverbeds and in the heart of fire risk areas, have aggravated the intensity of the catastrophes.

The series of fires that hit Russia this summer, in particular a large region around Moscow, is testimony to the bourgeoisie’s inability to master these phenomena. The flames consumed hundreds of thousands of hectares, leaving many victims. For several days thick smoke enveloped the capital, doubling the daily mortality rate. And, for good measure, nuclear and chemical risks threatened those well beyond Russian frontiers because of fires in areas contaminated by the Tchernobyl explosion and the risk to arms depots and chemical products more or less abandoned in the countryside.

An essential element for understanding the role of the bourgeoisie in the scale of the fires is the stupefying neglect of the forests. Russia has extensive and dense forests, requiring particular care for the rapid isolation of outbreaks of fire in order to prevent them spreading and becoming uncontrollable. Now, many of the massive Russian forests do not even have access routes so that fire engines are incapable of extinguishing the heart of most of the fires. Russia only has 22,000 firemen, less than a small country like France, to struggle against the flames. The corrupt regional governors prefer to use their meagre resources for managing the forests for luxury cars as several scandals have revealed.

The same cynicism has been shown toward the peat zones, those areas of decomposing organic material that are particularly flammable. Not only does the Russian bourgeoisie abandon them but it builds houses in areas where extensive fires occurred in 1972. The calculation is simple: property developers can buy these lands at knockdown prices.

In this way capitalism transforms humanly controllable natural phenomena into real catastrophes. And when it comes to horror, the bourgeoisie knows no limits. For several weeks torrential rain caused major flooding in Pakistan with mud slides, thousands of victims, 20 million homeless, and considerable material damage. Famine and the spread of disease, particularly cholera, worsened an already desperate situation. For more than a month, the Pakistani bourgeoisie and its army revealed an incredible incompetence and cynicism, blaming capricious nature. As in Russia, anarchic urbanisation and the impotent emergency services show the laws of capitalism to be the essential factor to understand the scale of the catastrophe.

But a particularly disgusting aspect of this tragedy is the way the imperialist powers tried to profit from the situation, using humanitarian operations as an alibi, to the detriment of the victims. The US supports the controversial government of Youssouf Raza Gilani, in the framework of the war within its Afghanistan neighbour, and very quickly profited from the events to deploy an important quantity of “humanitarian” aid consisting of helicopter carriers, amphibious assault boats, etc. Under the pretext of stopping Al Qaida terrorists from using the situation, the US put a break on the arrival of “international aid” coming from other countries – of course, this “humanitarian aid” also comprised the military, diplomats and unscrupulous investors.

For each sizeable catastrophe every country tries to advance its imperialist interests. Among the means used, the promise of aid has become systematic. All the governments officially announce substantial financial help, which is only really given if it satisfies the ambitions of the donors. For example, to date, only 10% of the international aid promised in January 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti has actually reached the Haitian bourgeoisie. And Pakistan is no exception to the rule: the millions promised will only be given against services rendered.

The bases of capitalism - the search for profit, competition, etc - are thus, at all levels, at the heart of the environmental problem. But the struggles around Pakistan also illustrate the growing imperialist tensions that ravage the planet.

Capitalism sows chaos and war

The election of Barack Obama at the head of the world’s principal imperialist power gave rise to many illusions in the possibility of pacifying international relations. In reality, the new American administration only confirms the imperialist dynamic that opened with the collapse of the Eastern Bloc. We predicted that the rigid discipline of the imperialist blocs would follow this collapse, giving place to indiscipline and a rampant chaos, to generalised struggle of each against all and to the uncontrollable proliferation of local military conflicts. Our analysis has been fully confirmed. The period opened by the crisis in 2008 and the worsening of the economic situation have sharpened imperialist antagonisms between nations. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute no less than 1,531 billion dollars have been spent on world military budgets in 2009, an increase of 5.9% compared to 2008 and of 49% compared to 2000. And yet these figures don’t take account of illegal arms trafficking. Even if the bourgeoisie of certain countries is obliged by the crisis to cut down on its military expenses, the growing militarisation of the planet reflects the only future that it promises humanity: the proliferation of imperialist conflicts.

With their 661 billions of military expenditure in 2009 the US benefits from an absolutely incontestable military superiority. However since the collapse of the Eastern Bloc the country is less and less able to mobilise other countries behind it, as the war in Iraq since 2003 shows. Here, despite the pull out announced recently, there are still tens of thousands of American troops. Not only has the US been unable to enrol many powers under its banner, like Russia, France, Germany and China, but others have little by little disengaged from the conflict, in particular Britain and Spain. Above all the American bourgeoisie seems less and less capable of assuring the stability of a conquered country (the Afghan and Iraqi quagmires are symptomatic of this impotence) or a region, as the defiant stance of Iran shows. American imperialism is thus clearly on the decline. Its attempts to restore its leadership through war have only weakened it further. 

Faced with the United States China is trying to realise its imperialist ambitions through military spending (100 billion dollars of military expenses in 2009, with annual double figure percentage increases since the 1990s) and on the ground. In Sudan for example as in many other countries it has implanted itself militarily and economically. The Sudanese regime and its militias, armed by China, continue to massacre the populations accused of supporting the rebels in Darfour, themselves armed by France, through the intermediary of Chad, and the US, the old adversary of France in the region. All these sickening manoeuvres have led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and displaced several million others.

The US and China are far from alone in the responsibility for the warlike chaos on the planet. In Africa for example, France, directly or through proxy militias, tries to save what it can from its influence, notably in Chad, in the Ivory Coast, or the Congo. The Palestinian and Israeli cliques, supported by their respective godfathers, continue an interminable war. The Israeli decision not to prolong the moratorium on construction in the occupied territories, while “peace negotiations” organised by the US are continuing, shows the impasse of Obama’s policy which wanted to be more diplomatic than that of Bush. Russia, through the war in Georgia or the occupation of Chechnya, tries to recreate a sphere of influence around itself. The litany of imperialist conflicts is too long to deal with exhaustively. Nevertheless the propagation of conflicts reveals that all the national fractions of the world bourgeoisie, powerful or not, have no other alternative to propose than the spilling of blood in defence of their imperialist interests.

The working class returns to the path of struggle

Faced with the depth of the crisis that capitalism is sinking into, workers’ miltancy is clearly not up to the mark. Past defeats still weigh heavily on the consciousness of our class. But the weapons of revolution are forged in the heart of struggles that the crisis has begun to develop significantly. For several years numerous struggles have broken out, sometimes simultaneously on the international level. Workers’ militancy appears simultaneously in the “rich” countries – in Germany, Spain, United States, Greece, Ireland, France and Japan – and in “poor” countries. The bourgeoisie of the rich countries spreads the dirty lie that the workers of the poor countries are taking the jobs of those in the rich countries. But it takes care to impose a blackout on the struggles of these workers that reveal they are also the victims of the same attacks of capitalism in crisis.

In China, in the country where the share of the wages in GDP has gone from 56% in 1983 to 36% in 2005, the workers of several factories have tried to free themselves from the unions, despite the strong illusions in the possibility of free trade unions. Above all the Chinese workers have co-ordinated their action themselves and spread their struggle beyond the factory. In Panama a strike broke out on the 1st July in the plantations in the province of Bocas de Toro to demand payment of wages and to oppose an anti-strike reform. Despite strong repression by the police and multiple forms of union sabotage, the workers immediately looked, successfully, to spread their movement. The same solidarity and will to fight collectively has animated a wildcat strike movement in Bangladesh, violently repressed by the forces of order.

In the central countries, the workers’ reaction in Greece has been relayed internationally in numerous struggles, in particular in Spain where the strikes have proliferated against draconian measures of austerity. The strike organised by the metro workers in Madrid is testimony to the will of the workers to extend their struggle and to organise themselves collectively through general assemblies. That’s why it has been the target of a campaign of denigration orchestrated by the Socialist government of Zapatero and its media mouthpieces. In France, if the unions are able to contain the strikes and demonstrations the reform to extend the retirement age has provoked a wide section of the working class. There have been significant but very minoritarian attempts to organise outside the unions through sovereign general assemblies to extend the struggles.

Obviously the consciousness of the world proletariat is still insufficient and these struggles, while simultaneous, are not immediately about to create the conditions for a common struggle at the international level. Nevertheless the crisis into which capitalism is sinking, the austerity cures and the growing poverty will inevitably multiply the struggles. These will tend to become more massive and as a result class identity, unity and solidarity will develop in small steps. This is the terrain for the conscious politicisation of the workers’ struggle for emancipation. The road to revolution is still long but as Marx and Engels wrote in the Communist Manifesto:

Not only has the bourgeoisie forged the weapons that will bring about its own demise, it has also called into existence the men who are to wield those weapons – the modern working class – the proletarians”.

V. 08/10/10



[1]. These statistics show the general increase in the official rate of unemployment that the tricks of the bourgeoisie can no longer hide. However one must be aware that these figures are far from reflecting the scale of the phenomenon since, in all countries, including those where the bourgeoisie must provide some social welfare, after a certain time of fruitless job-seeking one is no longer considered as unemployed.

General and theoretical questions: 

Recent and ongoing: 

Hot Autumn in Italy 1969 (ii) An episode in the historic resurgence of the class struggle

In the previous article we talked about the major struggle undertaken by the working class in Italy at the end of the 60s, which has passed into history under the name of “the Hot Autumn”. As the article says, this name is too narrow to describe a period which involved the workers in Italy from 1968 -1969 at the very least and which left a profound mark on the years that followed. We also showed how this struggle in Italy was just one of the many episodes in the process of an international resurgence of the class struggle, following a long period of counter-revolution that blighted the whole world after the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the 1920s. The conclusion of the first article recalled the fact that this enormous development of militancy, accompanied by important moments of clarification in the working class, nevertheless encountered serious obstacles in the subsequent period. The Italian bourgeoisie, like that of the other countries that had to confront the awakening of the working class, did not remain with its arms folded for long and used both direct police intervention and other methods to get around its difficulties. As we will see in the following article, the ability of the bourgeoisie to recuperate the situation was largely due to the weaknesses of a proletarian movement which, in spite of its enormous militancy, was as yet lacking in clear class consciousness and whose vanguard did not itself have the necessary maturity or clarity to play its role.

The weaknesses of the working class during the Hot Autumn were mainly linked to the profound organic break experienced in the workers' movement after the defeat of the revolutionary wave in the 1920s and to the stifling domination of Stalinism. This had a two-fold negative effect on class consciousness. On the one hand, the class’ political heritage had been wiped out; the communist perspective had been confused with inter-classist programmes for nationalisation and the class struggle itself had been more and more confused with the struggle for the “defence of the fatherland”![1] On the other hand, the apparent continuity running from the revolutionary wave of the 1920s to the period of the most atrocious counter-revolution, with its Stalinist purges and millions of workers massacred in the name of “communism”, impressed upon people the idea that Marxism and Leninism should be rejected, or at least seriously revised. This idea was also reinforced by the false propaganda of the bourgeoisie about communists always being ready to oppress and exercise violence against people. When the working class awoke, in Italy and also internationally, it did not have the backing of any revolutionary organisation with a theoretical basis solid enough to support its return to the struggle. In fact nearly all the new groups that were formed by the momentum of the resurgence of the class struggle at the end of the 1960s, although they did take up the classics, did so with a sort of a priori critique which did not help them find what they needed. Even the formations of the Communist Left that had survived the long years of counter-revolution had not remained politically unscathed. The councilists - the almost obliterated testimony to the heroic experience of the German-Dutch Left in the 1920s - were still terrorised by the destructive role that might be played by a future degenerated party which, like the Stalinist party had done before, would impose its domination over the state and the proletariat. This led them to withdraw more and more into a position as “participants in the struggle” without playing any vanguard role and keeping the heritage of past lessons to themselves. In a way it was the same with the Bordigists and the Italian Left post 1943 (Programma Comunista and Battaglia Comunista) even though they, on the contrary, forcefully defended a role for the party. Paradoxically, because of their inability to understand the period they were living through and because of a sort of party-worship, combined with an underestimation of workers' struggles when waged in the absence of revolutionary organisations, they refused to recognise the Hot Autumn and the struggles at the end of the 1960s as the historic resurgence of the class at an international level. Because of this, their presence at the time was practically zero.[2] This is why the new political groups that were formed during the 1960s, both because of the distrust evoked by a confrontation with former political experiences, and also because of the absence of previously established political reference points, were obliged to reinvent positions and a programme of action. The problem was that their departure point was their experience within the old, decrepit Stalinist party. This is why a large number of militants from this generation positioned themselves in opposition to these parties and to the unions. They burnt their bridges to the left parties, but also in part to the Marxist tradition, they were searching for a revolutionary way that was “new” and which they thought they would come across in the street. This led to a considerable development in spontaneism and voluntarism because what still appeared in official dress was Stalinism in either its old form (USSR, CP) or in its new “Chinese” guise.

The dominant ideology of the Hot Autumn: workerism

It was within this context that workerism, the dominant ideology of the Hot Autumn, developed. The healthy reaction of the workers to take up the class struggle against the bureaucratised and asphyxiating structures of the Italian CP (PCI)[3] and the unions, led them to lose all trust in these structures and to put all their confidence in the working class itself. This was clearly expressed in the intervention of a worker of the Milan Om at the Palasport in Turin on the occasion of a meeting of the newly formed Lotta Continua in January 1970:

Unlike the Communist Party, we aren't led by four members of the bourgeoisie. [...] We aren't like the PCI because workers will be at the head of the organisation”.[4]

The judgement passed on the unions is particularly harsh:

We don't think that the unions can be changed 'from within' or that new ones – more 'red', more 'revolutionary', more 'proletarian', without bureaucrats – should be formed. We think that the unions are a cog in the bosses' system... and that they must therefore be fought against, as must the bosses”.[5]

So in this article we will try to present the main aspects of workerism, in particular the version defended by Tony Negri, who is still one of the best known representatives of this political current. We will try to draw out its strengths and also the reason behind its failure in the end. In order to do so, we will refer to Toni Negri’s Dall'operaio massa all'operaio sociale. Intervista sull'operaismo.[6] We will begin with a definition of workerism:

What we call 'workerism' had its beginnings and took form as an attempt to reply politically to the crisis in the workers' movement in the 50s, a crisis that was largely determined by the historic events in the movement around the 20th Congress”.[7]

We can already see from this quote that, in spite of the profound break with the official left forces, the definition of the latter – and in particular of the PCI - is completely inadequate and is not rooted in a deep theoretical understanding. The starting point is the so-called “crisis in the workers' movement in the 50s” whereas, on the contrary, what is described as a“workers' movement”was, at the time, no more than the international of the Stalinist counter-revolution. This was so because the revolutionary wave had already been defeated in the 1920s and the majority of the workers' political cadres were annihilated because they were dispersed or massacred. This ambiguity towards the PCI was to find expression in a “love-hate” relationship with the party of origin and explains why, in time, so many elements had no problem returning to the cradle.[8]

Workerism was originally based on what was described as the mass worker, that is, the new generation of proletarians, most of whom had come from the south during the period of the expansion and modernisation of industry which took place from the second half of the 1950s to the early 1960s. It was to replace the old image of the professional worker. This new generation was generally obliged to do unqualified and repetitive jobs. The fact that this part of the proletariat, young and with no past history, was much less amenable to the sirens of Stalinism and syndicalism and much more ready to throw itself into the struggle, led the workerists of the period to come up with a sociological analysis stating that the PCI represented the strata of professional workers, a workers' aristocracy.[9] We will consider later where this sort of social purism leads in terms of political choice.

From the partyist conception to the dissolution of the movement

The general context of the 1960s; the enormous strength and duration of the class movement in Italy at the time, the fact that there was no past experience that pre-existing proletarian organisations could have transmitted directly, led this generation of young militants to conclude that a revolutionary situation had arrived[10] and that it was necessary to set up a relationship of permanent conflict with the bourgeoisie, a sort of dual power. It was the lot of the groups who defended this idea (mainly Potere Operaio) to assume a leadership role in the movement's debates (“act as a party”) and to develop continuous and systematic action against the state. This is how Toni Negri expressed it:

The political activity of Potere Operaio will be to systematically gather together the class movement, the various situations, the different sectors of the working class and the proletariat and to lead them towards significant points, towards moments of mass confrontation that are able to damage the state reality as it appears. The exercising of a counter-power, a counter-power that is linked to specific experiences but which aims increasingly to protect itself and act against state power, is also fundamental as a subject for analysis and a function of the organisation.[11]

Unfortunately, in the absence of a critique of Stalinist practice, these groups – workers or otherwise – entrenched themselves behind a logic that remained a Stalinist one. The idea of “exemplary action” that is able to push workers to behave in a given way, weighed particularly heavily:

I didn't hold pacifist positions”, said Negarville, one of the steward leaders who was looking for, and found, confrontations with the police on Corso Traiano (3rd July 1969: 70 policemen wounded, 160 demonstrators arrested). “The idea of exemplary action which provokes police reaction was part of the theory and practice of Lotta Continua from the beginning, street confrontations are like workers' wage struggles, useful at the beginning of the movement”, says Negarville. There is nothing worse than a peaceful demonstration or a good contract. What is important is not to attain an objective, it is rather the struggle in itself, the struggle “is continuous” in fact.[12]

This is the same logic that would later push the various terrorist formations to challenge the state, on the backs of the workers, acting on the belief that the more the attack is brought to the heart of the state, the more the proletariat will be encouraged. Experience shows that, on the contrary, each time terrorist gangs have stolen the initiative from the working class, placing it in a situation of blackmail in fact, the consequence has always been the paralysis of the working class.[13]

However, this search for continual confrontations not only drained the energy of the workerist formations in the long term, it also made it difficult for them to find room for serious political reflection, which is so necessary:

In fact, the organisational life of Potere Operaio was continually interrupted by the need to deal with decisive moments that, more and more often, went beyond the capacity to react on a massive scale. In addition, there was often little implantation within the masses, which made it impossible to confront these moments”.[14]

Moreover the class struggle, which had accelerated considerably with the development of important struggles at the beginning of the 1970s, began to decline. This put an end to the experience of Potere Operaio and the group was dissolved in 1973: soon as we realised that the problem raised was insoluble given the current situation and balance of forces, we dissolved the organisation. If our strength was not enough to resolve the problem at that time, the strength of the mass movement would have to resolve it in one way or another or else put forward a new way to pose the problem.[15]

The basic hypothesis that there was a proletarian attack upon capital that was permanent and growing in a linear way and that therefore the material conditions were ripe for the construction of “a new revolutionary party”, was soon shown to be unfounded and out of tune with the negative reality of the “reflux”.

But instead of accepting this, the workerists gave themselves over bit by bit to subjectivism, believing that they had produced a crisis in the economic system through their struggles and they gradually lost any materialist basis for their analyses, sometimes going so far as to adopt inter-classist positions.

From workerism to workers' autonomy

The political themes characterising workerism are not always the same, and they can be presented with varying degrees of force. Even so, all the positions of Potere Operaio (and of workerism in general) contain this need for direct confrontation with the state, an opposition that must be ostentatious and continuous and is a sign of political action, an expression of vitality. What was to change gradually was the reference to the working class, or rather the image of the worker to whom reference is made. At first it was the mass worker but this was gradually diluted into that of a so-called “social worker” when there were less struggles. This change in the social reference point goes a long way to explaining the whole evolution of workerism, or more precisely, its political involution.

In order to try to explain this evolution in workerism's positions, a certain picture of capital is painted; one in which capital tends to undo workers' militancy – apparently based in the factory – by dispersing the class geographically:

...capitalist restructuring became equivalent to a colossal operation around the composition of the working class, an operation to liquidate the form taken by the working class in the 1970s and which characterised it then. At that time what predominated was the mass worker as a pivotal figure in capitalist production and in the production of social value concentrated in the factory. Because of this internal political rigidity between production and reproduction, capitalist restructuring was forced to play on the isolation of the mass worker in the factory in relation to the process of socialisation of production and to the image of the worker, which became more diffuse socially. On the other hand, in as far as the production process spread socially, the law of value began to operate only in a formal way, that is, it no longer worked on the direct relationship between individual, specific work and the surplus value extracted, but upon social work as a whole.”[16]

So the reference image of the worker became that of an imaginary “social worker”, an image that was so vague, in spite of Negri's precisions,[17] that at the time the movement saw a bit of everything in it.

The transition from the mass worker to the social worker spelt the dissolution of workerism (Potere Operaio) or its degeneration into parliamentarism (Lotta Continua) and a new phenomenon was born; workers' autonomy,[18] which saw itself as a movement in continuity with the experience of workerism.

Workers' Autonomy was formed in 1973 at the Bologna Congress in a period in which a large number of young people identified with the image of the social worker invented by Toni Negri. For this “young proletariat”, the path to liberation was no longer by means of the conquest of power but through the development “of a social atmosphere able to incarnate the utopia of a community which awakens and which is organised outside of the economic model, of work and wages[19] and so by the creation of “communism right away”. Politics became “a luxury”, dictated by and subject to desires and needs. Taking shape around the social centres, where young people from working class districts congregated, this “communism right away” took the form of an increase in direct action, especially “proletarian expropriations”, seen as a “social wage”, “auto-reduction of bills, the occupation of lodgings”both public and private, and a confused experience of self-management and living alternatively. Moreover, the voluntarist attitude, which takes its desires for reality, was strengthened to the point that it envisaged a situation in which the bourgeoisie would be assailed by the social worker:

...the situation in Italy is now characterised by an indomitable, radical counter-power, which no longer has anything to do with the factory worker, with the situation set up by the ‘labour laws’ or with the institutional structures determined by the post-68ers. On the contrary, we are in a situation in which, within the whole process of reproduction - and this must be stressed – workers' self-organisation has been definitively achieved”.[20]

This analysis was not applied to the Italian situation alone but was extended to the international level, especially to those countries in which the economy was most developed, such as the United States and Great Britain. The conviction that the workers' movement held a position of strength, was so firm that it led Toni Negri (and the autonomists of the period) to believe that states had decided to put their hands in their wallets and try to stem the flow of the proletarian offensive by distributing a larger proportion of the revenue:

...these are phenomena with which we are very well acquainted in economies that are more advanced than our own, phenomena that found complete expression during the 60s, in the United States or in Great Britain, where there was a real attempt to block the movement, on the one hand through the destruction of the subjective vanguard of the movement, and on the other – and this is important – through control mechanisms based on the availability of a great sum of cash, on an intensive structuring of the distribution of revenue”.[21]

Therefore, in a situation in which “the whole process of value no longer exists”, the bosses would even be willing to gain nothing if only to “restore the laws of accumulation” and “completely socialise the instruments of control and command”.[22] In other words, they imagined that their struggle had destabilised the state, that they had created a crisis situation within it, but without even realising that, increasingly, on the streets there were only young people who had less and less to do with the world of the factory and of work and who consequently had less and less chance of imposing a favourable balance of forces against the bourgeoisie.

What characterised the period was the concept of “workers' self-realisation” which, over and above aspects linked to material gains, referred to “moments of counter-power”, that is, “political moments of self-determination, of separation of the reality of the class from that which is the global reality of capitalist production”.[23] Within this context, “the proletarian conquest of revenue” would be able to “destroy at times the equation of the law of value”.[24] Here there is a confusion between, on the one hand, the ability of the class to obtain higher wages and so reduce the proportion of surplus value extorted by the capitalists, with, on the other hand, a so-called “destruction” of the law of value. On the contrary, the law of value, as the history of capitalism has shown, has always survived even in those countries of so-called “really existing socialism” (the Eastern countries that in the past were insidiously called communist).

From all of this we can see that the autonomist milieu was full of illusions that the proletariat could create and enjoy within bourgeois society a relatively “stable” position of counter-power, whereas in reality the situation of dual power is a particularly precarious one, typical of revolutionary periods. It must either evolve into a victorious offensive of the proletarian revolution with the development of the exclusive power of the working class and the destruction of bourgeois power; or it must degenerate into a defeat for the class.

It is this serious disconnection from material reality, from the economic base of the struggle, which led to a fantastical and student-like development in the political positions of autonomy.

One of the positions particularly in vogue with the militants of workers' autonomy was the refusal to work, closely linked to the theory of needs. To the correct observation that the tendency must be for the worker not to remain stuck within the logic of the bosses' interests and for him to demand satisfaction for his basic needs, autonomy's theoreticians superimposed a theory that went further by identifying workers' self-valorisation with sabotaging the bosses' machinery, to the point of claiming that such acts of sabotage are a pleasure. This is what emerges from Negri’s satisfied description of the “freedom” exercised by the Alfa Romeo workers when smoking on the production line without worrying about the damage done to production. No doubt it sometimes gives great satisfaction to do something that there is no point in defending, to do something at any rate that the arrogance of force forbids you to do. It is a psychological – even a physical – satisfaction. But what has this got to do with the conclusions drawn by Toni Negri, who sees this act of smoking as “an extremely important thing [...], almost as important theoretically as the discovery that it is the working class that determines the development of capital,” According to Negri, “the dominion of needs” is no longer that of material, objective, natural needs but rather something that is created gradually, “which permeates, and succeeds in dominating, every opportunity provided by the counter-culture”.

In a way, the correct refusal to remain alienated, not only materially but also mentally, at the workplace, which is expressed in disobedience to factory discipline, is presented as “a qualitatively remarkable fact; something that is in direct proportion to the degree to which needs expand. What does it mean to enjoy the refusal to work, what else could it mean if not to build a series of material capacities for enjoyment which are completely alternative to the rhythm, work-family-bar. This is useful for breaking with this stagnant world; alternative, radical possibilities and power are discovered through the experience of revolt”.[25]

In fact, by losing itself in chasing after empty illusions without any perspective, workerism, in its social worker form, degenerated completely. It became dispersed among a number of separate initiatives, each one aiming to satisfy the needs of this or that category, which was a million miles away from the expression of class solidarity expressed during the Hot Autumn and which reappeared later when the working class took the stage once more.

The reaction of the state and the epilogue to the Hot Autumn

As we said at the beginning of this article, the ability of the bourgeoisie to recuperate the situation is largely due to the weaknesses of the proletarian movement that we have described. We must add however that, although the bourgeoisie was initially taken completely by surprise, it was subsequently able to launch an unprecedented attack against the workers’ movement, both in terms of direct repression and in the form of manoeuvres of every kind.

In terms of repression

This is the classic weapon of the bourgeoisie against its class enemy, although it is not the decisive weapon for creating a real balance of forces against the proletariat. Between October 1969 and January 1970, charges were drawn up against more than three thousand workers and students.

Students and workers, more than three thousand between October 1969 and January 1970, were prosecuted. Fascist laws, which punish 'subversive propaganda' and 'the instigation of hatred between the classes' were dug up. Police confiscated the works of Marx, Lenin and Che Guevara”.[26]

In terms of the interplay fascism/anti-fascism

This is the classic weapon used against the student movement, although it is used less in conflicts with the working class. It aims at derailing the movement into sterile street confrontations between rival gangs with reference, perforce, to the “democratic and anti-fascist” members of the bourgeoisie. In short, it is a way of getting the sheep back into the sheep pen.

In terms of the strategy of tension

This was certainly the masterpiece of the Italian bourgeoisie during these years and it succeeded in changing the political climate dramatically. Everyone remembers the massacre at the Banca dell'Agricoltura, Piazza Fontana in Milan on 12th December 1969, which caused 16 deaths and 88 wounded. But not everyone knows, or remembers, that from 25th April 1969, Italy suffered a continuous series of attacks:

On 25th April, two bombs exploded in Milan; one at the central station and the other, which caused around twenty wounded, at the Fiat stand in the trade fair. On 12th May, three explosive devices; two in Rome and one in Turin, failed to explode by pure luck. In July the weekly magazine Panorama repeated rumours of a right-wing coup d'état. Neo-fascist groups called for mobilisation, the PCI placed its sections on a state of alert. On 24th July, an explosive device similar to those found in Rome and Turin was discovered, unexploded, at the law courts in Milan. On 8th and 9th August, eight attacks against the railways caused serious damage and left some wounded. On 4th October in Trieste an explosive left in an elementary school and timed to explode when the children came out of school, failed to go off because of a technical malfunction; a militant of Avantguardia Nazionale[27] was accused. In Pisa on the 27th October, the toll of a day of confrontations between police and demonstrators , who were protesting against a demonstration of Italian and Greek fascists, was one dead and 125 wounded. [...] On 12th December, four explosive devices went off in Rome and Milan. There were no victims from the three in Rome but the one in Milan, in Piazza Fontana opposite the Banca dell'Agricoltura, caused 16 deaths and 88 wounded. A fifth explosive device, also in Milan, was found intact. So there began in Italy what has in deed been called the long night of the Republic”.[28]

In the subsequent period, the rhythm slowed down slightly but it never stopped. From 1969 to 1980 12,690 attacks and other incidents of politically motivated violence were recorded, killing 362 and wounding 4,490. The number of dead and wounded per attack rose to 150 and 551 respectively; with a total of 11 attacks, the first in December 1969 in Piazza Fontana in Milan, the most serious (85 dead and 200 wounded) at Bologna railway station in August 1980.[29]

...the violence of the state was revealed above all expectation: it organised the attacks, held enquiries, arrested innocent people, one of whom – Pinelli – it killed and it did it all moreover with the blessing of certain newspapers and the TV. The 12th December uncovered an unforeseen dimension to the political struggle and even revealed the breadth of the front that we had to fight against [...)]. So, with Piazza Fontana a new enemy was discovered: the state. Beforehand, the adversary was the teacher, the team leader, the boss. The references went across national borders, they were of different regions of the world: Vietnam, the French May, the Black Panthers, China. The uncovering of the terrorist state opened up a new horizon to the struggles: that of plots, of making use of the neo-fascists[30]

The aim of this strategy was obviously to intimidate and disorient the working class as much as possible, to spread fear of the bombs and insecurity, and this was a partial success. It also had another effect that was certainly more harmful; with Piazza Fontana the state was seen, at least by certain minorities, to be the real enemy, this was the entity with which it was necessary to settle the score. This diverted a series of proletarian and student elements towards terrorism as a method of struggle.

Encouraging the terrorist dynamic

Terrorism therefore became the way in which many brave but adventurist comrades destroyed their lives and their political engagement by engaging in a practice that has nothing to do with the class struggle. This practice also led to dire consequences by provoking a reflux in the whole of the working class, which was confronted with the two-fold threat of state repression on the one hand and blackmail from the “brigadist” and terrorist world on the other.

The unions make up ground by means of the Factory Councils

The last element, but certainly not the least important, on which the bourgeoisie depended was the union. As they could no longer rely on repression to keep the proletariat at arms' length, the bosses who, in all the years from the post-war period to the dawning of the Hot Autumn, had been extremely hostile to the unions, suddenly discovered that they were democratic and lovers of good factory relations. The trick obviously is that what you cannot get through bad relations, you try to get through good ones and you do it by trying to set up a dialogue with the unions, seen to be the only possible intermediaries able to control the struggles and the workers' demands. This granting of a wider democratic terrain to the unions led to the setting up and development of the Factory Councils, a form of base unionism in which it was not necessary to be a card-holder in order to participate. This gave the workers the illusion that this much at least they had won and that it was possible to have confidence in these new structures to pursue their struggle. In fact, the workers' struggle, although often very critical in its relations with the unions, has not managed to make an in-depth critique of them, but limits itself to denouncing their inconsistencies.

In conclusion...

In these two articles we have tried to show, on the one hand the strength and potential of the working class and, on the other, how important it is that its action be supported by a clear consciousness of the path it must take. The workers who awoke to the class struggle at the end of the 1960s in Italy and in the whole world, did not have at their disposal the memory of past experience and so they could depend only on the empirical gains that they gradually accumulated. This was the main weakness of the movement.

Today, in the various representations of France 1968 and the Italian Hot Autumn, there are many who sigh with nostalgia when they recall that this period is long gone and that the struggles seem unable to rise up again. We think that the opposite is the case. The Hot Autumn, the French May and all the struggles that shook society internationally at the end of the 60s were only the beginning of the class struggle, whereas the subsequent years saw a development and a maturation of the situation. In particular, today there is a more significant international presence of political, internationalist vanguards (although still very much a minority) which, unlike the sclerotic groups of the past, are able to debate together, to work and intervene together with the common aim of developing the class struggle.[31]

Moreover, today there is more than just a basic militancy in the class that makes it possible for various struggles to hatch out throughout the world,[32] there is also the general feeling that the society in which we live no longer has anything to offer economically and also that can it give no security against environmental disaster or war, etc. This kind of feeling tends to become more wide-spread to the point at which you can sometimes hear people, who have no political experience, talking of the need to make the revolution. At the same time, most of these people think that the revolution is impossible, that the exploited do not have the strength to overturn the capitalist system:

We can summarise this situation in the following way: at the end of the 1960s, the idea that the revolution was possible could be relatively widely accepted, but the idea that it was indispensable was far less easy to understand. Today, on the other hand, the idea that the revolution is necessary can meet with an echo that is not negligible, but the idea that it is possible is far less widespread.

For consciousness of the possibility of the communist revolution to gain a significant echo within the working class, the latter has to gain confidence in its own strength, and this takes place through the development of massive struggles. The huge attacks which it is now facing on an international scale provides the objective basis for such struggles. However, the main form this attack is taking today, that of massive lay-offs, does not initially favour the emergence of such movements; in general, [...] moments of sharply rising unemployment are not the theatre of the most important struggles. Unemployment, massive lay-offs, have a tendency to provoke a temporary feeling of paralysis in the class [...]. This is why, in the coming period, the fact that we do not see a widescale response from the working class to the attacks should not lead us to consider that it has given up the struggle for the defence of its interests. It is in a second period, when it is less vulnerable to the bourgeoisie's blackmail, that workers will tend to turn to the idea that a united and solid struggle can push back the attacks of the ruling class, especially when the latter tries to make the whole working class pay for the huge budget deficits accumulating today with all the plans for saving the banks and stimulating the economy. This is when we are more likely to see the development of broad struggles by the workers.[33]

This feeling of impotence has been, and still is, a weight upon the present generation of proletarians and it serves to explain the hesitations, the lateness, the lack of reaction to the bourgeoisie's attacks. But we must look upon our class with the confidence that comes from the knowledge of its history and its past struggles. We must work to recreate the link between past struggles and those of the present. We must participate in the struggles and inspire courage and confidence in the future, accompany the proletariat and stimulate it to rediscover the consciousness that the future of humanity rests on its shoulders and that it has the capacity to accomplish this immense task.


Ezechiele 23/08/10



[1]. In particular the destructive role played by the “resistance to fascism” which, in the name of a supposed “struggle for freedom”, led proletarians to get themselves massacred on behalf of one fraction of the bourgeoisie or another in the war in Spain (1936-1939) and then in the Second World War.

[2]. “Having formed the party in 1945, while the class was still in the grip of the counter-revolution, and having failed since then to critise this premature formation, these groups (who continued to call themselves 'the party') proved unable to distinguish between the counter-revolution and the end of the counter-revolution. They saw nothing of any importance for the working class either in the France of May 1968 or in the Italian Hot Autumn of 1969, and put these events down to mere student agitation. By contrast, our comrades of Internacionalismo (in particular MC, an old militant of the Fraction and the GCF); conscious of the change in the balance of class forces, understood the necessity of launching a process of discussion and regroupment with those groups that had emerged as a result of the change in the historic course. These comrades repeatedly asked the PCInt to appeal for the opening of discussion between the groups and to call an international conference inasmuch as the size and influence of the PCInt was far greater than that of our little nucleus in Venezuela. Each time, the PCInt rejected our proposal on the basis that nothing new was going on. Finally a first cycle of conferences began in 1973 following an appeal launched by Internationalism, a group in the United States close to the positions of Internacionalismo and of  Révolution Internationale which had been formed in France in 1968. It was largely thanks to these conferences, which allowed a serious decantation to take place among a whole series of groups and elements that had come towards politics after May 1968, that the ICC was formed in January 1975.” See the history of 30 years of the ICC (http//

[3]. On the PCI, see the two articles “Breve Storia del PCI ad uso dei proletari che non vogliono credere più a niente ad occhi chiusi” I (1921-1936) and II (1936-1947) (Rivoluzione Internazionale n° 63 and 64). (“Brief History of the PCI for the use of workers who no longer want to believe in anything with their eyes closed”). The novel by Ermanno Rea, Mistero Romano (editorEinaudi) is particularly useful for understanding how heavy were the relationships within the PCI in this period.

[4]. Also Cazzulo, I ragazzi che volevano fare la revoluzione. 1968-1978. Storia critica di Lotta Continua  Sperling and Kupfer, eds, p.8.

[5]. “Tra servi e padroni”, in Lotta Continua, 6th December 1969, also quoted in Aldo Cazzullo's book, ibid p. 89.

[6]. Antonio Negri, From the mass worker to the social worker. An interview on workerism. In Italian, Ombre Corte editions.

[7]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p. 36-37.

[8]. We cannot help being struck by the number of elements in today's world - public figures, politicians, journalists, writers - holding the political positions of the centre left or even of the right, who in the past have passed through groups of the extra-parliamentary left and through workerism in particular. We will mention only a few: Massimo Cacciari, member of parliament for the PD (formerly the Margherita) and twice mayor of Venice; Alberto Asor Rosa, writer and literary critic; Adriano Sofri, moderate journalist for La Repubblica and Il Foglio; Mario Tronti, who returned to the PCI as a member of the central committee and elected senator; Paolo Liguori, journalist with management responsibilities for various television news broadcasts and other editorial undertakings for Berlusconi... There are dozens upon dozens of other names that could be added to the list.

[9]. We do not share Lenin's analysis that there exists a labour aristocracy within the working class. See our article: “Workers' aristocracy. A sociological theory to divide the working class”. (International Review n° 25)

[10]. An idea that was widely held at an international level as well.

[11]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.105.

[12]. Aldo Cazzullo, op.cit., p. XII.

[13]. On this point see: “Terror, terrorism and class violence”, (International Review n° 14); “Sabotage des lignes SNCF: des actes stériles instrumentalisés par la bourgeoisie contre la class ouvrière” (ICC on line, 2008); “Débat sur la violence (II): il est nécessaire de dépasser le faux dilemme: pacifisme social-démocrate ou violence minoritaire” (ICC on line, 2009).

[14]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.105.

[15]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.108.

[16]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.113.

[17]. “When we say 'social worker', what we really mean – and this is extremely precise – is that surplus value is extracted from this subject. When we speak of the 'social worker', we are talking of a subject that is productive and when we say that he is productive, we are saying that he produces surplus value, in the long or short term”. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.18.

[18]. On this question, see our articles: “L'area della Autonomia: la confusione contro la classe operaia” in Rivoluzione Internazionale n°s 8 and 10.

[19]. N. Balestrini, P. Moroni, L'orda d'oro, Milan, SugarCo Editioni, 1988, p.334.

[20]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.138.

[21]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.116-117.

[22]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.118.

[23]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.142.

[24]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.142.

[25]. Antonio Negri, op.cit., p.130-132.

[26]. Alessandro Silj, Malpaese, Criminalità, corruzione e politica nell'Italia della prima Repubblica 1943-1994. editor Donzelle, p.100-101.

[27]. An extreme right wing group.

[28]. Alessandro Silj, op.cit., p. 95-96.

[29]. Alessandro Silj, op.cit., p. 113.

[30]. Statement of Marco Revelli, who was a militant of Lotta Continua at the time. In: Aldo Cazzullo, ibid, p. 91.

[31]. It is not possible to list here all the various articles dealing with this new generation of internationalists, so we invite our readers to see our web site, where they can find a great deal of information.

[32]. On the current development of the class struggle, we refer you to our internet site, drawing particular attention to the articles on Vigo (Spain), Greece and Tekel (Turkey).

[33]. “Resolution on the international situation from the 18th congress of the ICC”, 2009, International Review n°138.


Historic events: 


What are workers' councils? (Part 4): The soviets attempt to wield power (1917 - 1921)

In previous articles in this series, we followed the appearance of the workers’ councils (i.e. soviets in Russian) during the revolution of 1905; their disappearance and resurgence during the revolution of 1917, and their crisis and revival in the hands of the workers which led to their seizure of power in October 1917.[1] In this article we will deal with the attempt by the soviets to wield power, a fundamental moment in the history of mankind: “For the first time, not the minority, not the rich alone, not the educated alone, but the real people, the vast majority of working people, are themselves building a new life, are by their own experience, solving the most difficult problems of socialist organisation[2].

October 1917 - April 1918: the rise of the soviets

Driven along by wild enthusiasm, the working masses set about the task of consolidating and continuing what they started before the revolution. The anarchist Paul Avrich described the atmosphere of those early months, by underlining that “the Russian working class enjoyed a degree of freedom and a sense of power unique in its history”.[3]

The mode of functioning the soviet power attempted to adopt was radically different from that of the bourgeois state in which the executive – the government – has virtually absolute power while the legislature – parliament – and the judiciary, which in theory should act as a counterbalance, are in reality very much subordinate to it. In any event, the three powers are completely divorced from the vast majority of the people whose role is limited to routinely placing voting papers in ballot boxes.[4] Soviet power was based on two completely new premises:

  • the active mass participation of the workers;
  • that it’s the mass of workers themselves who discuss, take decisions and implement them.

As Lenin said at the Second Congress of Soviets: “In the eyes of the bourgeoisie, strength is manifested when the masses go blindly to the slaughter. The only government which the bourgeoisie recognise as strong is one which can use all the power of the state machine to put the masses anywhere it pleases. Our conception of strength is different. In our eyes, a government is strong in proportion to the consciousness of the masses. It is strong when the masses know everything, judge everything, accept everything consciously.”[5]

However, once they took power, the soviets ran into an obstacle: the Constituent Assembly, which represented the very negation of all these premises and a return to the past: the allocation of power and its exercise by a bureaucratic caste of politicians.

When confronting Tsarism, the workers’ movement in Russia had demanded a Constituent Assembly as a step towards a bourgeois republic, but the revolution of 1917 had largely gone beyond this old rallying cry. The weight of the past clearly continued to have an influence, even after the proclamation of soviet power, not only on the large masses of workers but also on many Bolshevik Party activists who believed the Constituent Assembly to be compatible with soviet power.

One of the most serious and fateful errors of the bourgeois-socialist coalition government was that time and again mainly legal considerations persuaded it to postpone the election and opening of the national [Constituent] Assembly”.[6] The succession of governments between February and October 1917 postponed it time and again, contradicting what they themselves claimed to be their ultimate goal. The Bolsheviks – not without internal divisions and contradictions themselves – had during this period been its principal supporters, while acknowledging it was inconsistent with the slogan “All power to the soviets!”

Thus dawned a paradox: three weeks after the soviets seized power, they fulfilled their promise by calling elections to the Constituent Assembly. These elections gave the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries a majority (299 seats), with the Bolsheviks a distant second (168), followed by the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries (39) and other smaller groups.

How is it possible for the election result to hand a victory to the losers of October?

Several factors explain it, but in Russia at this precise time the most obvious was that voting put on an equal footing “citizens” whose conditions are radically opposed: workers, bosses, bureaucrats, farmers, etc., which always favours the exploiting minority and the status quo. More generally, there is another factor that affects the revolutionary class: the vote is an act in which the atomised individual allows himself to be led by multiple considerations, specific influences and interests, based on the illusion of being a hypothetically free “citizen”, and therefore expresses nothing of the active power of a collective mass. The “individual citizen” worker who votes in the polling booth and the worker who participates in an assembly are like two different people.

The Constituent Assembly was moreover completely ineffective. It was discredited. It took some grandiloquent decisions that had no effect and its meetings were limited to a mere succession of boring speeches. The Bolshevik agitation, supported by the anarchists and Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, clearly posed the dilemma of Soviets or Assembly and thus contributed to a clarification of consciousness. After multiple metamorphoses, the Constituent Assembly was quietly disbanded in January 1918 by the sailors assigned to stand guard over it.

Exclusive power passed to the soviets through which the mass of workers reasserted their political existence. During the first months of the revolution and at least until the summer of 1918, the permanent self activity of the masses that we had already witnessed in February 1917, not only continued but spread and grew stronger. The workers, the women and the youth all lived within a dynamic of assemblies, factory and neighbourhood councils, local soviets, conferences, meetings, etc. “The first phase of the soviet regime was that of almost unlimited autonomy of its local institutions. Fuelled by an intense life and a more and more numerous one, the grass roots soviets were protective of their authority.[7] The main discussions in the local soviets were about matters affecting the whole of Russia but they also discussed the international situation, particularly revolutionary developments.[8]

The Council of People’s Commissars created by the Second Congress of Soviets was not conceived as a de facto government, that is to say as an independent power monopolising affairs, but rather as the animator and the engine of mass action. Anweiler refers to the campaign of agitation Lenin conducted: “On 18 November, Lenin appealed to the workers to take over all government affairs: The soviets were now all powerful and would decide everything.[9] It was not rhetoric. The Council of People’s Commissars, unlike bourgeois governments, did not comprise a constellation of impressive advisers, career civil servants, bodyguards, collaborators, etc. As Victor Serge recounts,[10] this body had a head of department and two assistants. Its meetings consisted in examining each matter with the delegations of workers, the members of the Executive Committee of Soviets or the Soviets of Petrograd and Moscow. Secret deliberations by the Council of Ministers were abolished.

In 1918, four All-Russia Congresses of Soviets were held: the Third in January, the Fourth in March, the Fifth in July and the Sixth in November. It shows the vitality and global vision that inspired the soviets. These general congresses, which required a tremendous effort of mobilisation – the transport system was paralysed and civil war made the movement of the delegates very complicated – expressed the global unity of the soviets and implemented their decisions.

The congresses were animated by lively debates in which it was not only Bolsheviks who participated but also internationalist Mensheviks, Left Socialist-Revolutionaries, anarchists, etc. Indeed Bolsheviks expressed their own differences. The atmosphere had a profound critical spirit as Victor Serge observed: “If the revolution is to be well must be constantly on guard against its own abuses, excesses, crimes and reactionary elements. It therefore has a vital need for criticism, opposition and civic courage on the part of those who carry it out.”[11]

In the Third and Fourth Congresses, there was a stormy debate on the signing of a peace treaty with Germany – Brest Litovsk[12] – that focused on two questions: how to retain soviet power while waiting for the world revolution? And what contribution could it actually make? The Fourth Congress was the scene of a bitter confrontation between the Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries. The Sixth Congress focused on the revolution in Germany and adopted measures to support it, including sending trains containing large quantities of wheat; an expression of the tremendous solidarity and commitment of the Russian workers who were then rationed to only 50 grams of bread per day!

The initiatives of the masses affected all aspects of social life. We aren’t able to provide a detailed analysis of this here and we will simply highlight that courts of justice were established in working class neighbourhoods and were seen as genuine assemblies where the causes of crimes were discussed and sentences were passed with the aim of changing the conduct of criminals and not as punishment or revenge. “According to Lenin’s wife, several male as well as female workers took the floor and their interventions were sometimes extremely vociferous. The embarrassed ‘lawyer’ did not stop mopping the perspiration from his brow, after the accused, his face bathed in tears, promised to refrain from beating his son. Actually, it was not so much a court as a public meeting to control the conduct of its citizens. Under our eyes, the proletarian ethic was taking shape.[13]

From April to December 1918: the crisis and decline of soviet power

However, this powerful momentum weakened and the soviets changed, distancing themselves from the majority of the workers. In May 1918, criticisms of soviet policy were already circulating among the working class in Moscow and Petrograd. As in July-September 1917, a series of attempts were made to revive the soviets;[14] in both cities independent conferences were held which, although focussed on economic demands, took up the renewal of the soviets as their main objective. The Mensheviks held the majority there, and this led the Bolsheviks to reject the conferences and to accuse them of being counter-revolutionary. The unions were mobilised to break them up and they quickly disappeared.

This measure contributed in undermining the very basis of the soviets’ existence. In the previous article in this series, we showed that the soviets did not exist in a vacuum but were the figurehead of a great proletarian movement formed by countless soviet organisations, factory committees, neighbourhood councils, conferences and mass assemblies, etc. By mid 1918, these organisations began to decline and gradually disappeared. The factory committees (which we will speak of again) disappeared first, then the neighbourhood soviets in turn entered a death agony that lasted from the summer of 1918 until their total disappearance in late 1919.

The two vital ingredients of the soviets’ existence were the massive network of grass roots soviet organisations and their constant renewal. The disappearance of the first was accompanied by the gradual elimination of the second. The appearance of the soviets didn’t change; they evolved little by little into a rigid bureaucracy.

The Bolshevik Party unwittingly contributed to this process. To combat the counter-revolutionary agitation of the Mensheviks and other parties inside the soviets, they resorted to administrative measures of exclusion, which contributed in creating an overwhelming atmosphere of passivity, a fear of debate, the gradual submission to the diktat of the Party.[15]

This repression was episodic in its early stages but eventually became widespread in the early months of 1919, when the central organs of the Party openly demanded the complete subordination of the soviets to their own local committees and the exclusion of the other parties.

The lack of life and debate, the bureaucratisation, subordination to the Party etc., became more and more oppressive. At the Seventh Congress of the Soviets, Kamenev recognised that “The soviet plenary sessions as political organisations often waste away, the people busy themselves with purely mechanical chores.... General soviet sessions are seldom called, and when the deputies meet, it is only to accept a report, listen to a speech, and the like.[16] This Congress, held in December 1919, had the rebirth of the soviets as its main topic of discussion and there were contributions not only from the Bolsheviks, seen for the last time expressing differences amongst themselves, but also internationalist Mensheviks, their leader Martov taking a very active part.

There was an effort to implement the resolutions of the Congress. In January 1920 elections were held that sought to re-establish the soviets under conditions of total freedom. “Martov acknowledged at the beginning of 1920 that, except in Petrograd, ‘where “Zinovievite” elections were held in the old manner,’ the return to more democratic methods was general, and often worked to the advantage of the candidates of his party.[17]

Many soviets reappeared and the Bolshevik Party tried to correct the errors of bureaucratic concentration that it had itself progressively helped to create. “The Soviet Government announced its intention of giving up some of the prerogatives it had usurped and restoring the rights of the Central Executive Committee [of the soviets, elected by Congress], which under the constitution of 1918 was supposed to supervise the activities of the People’s Commissars.[18]

These hopes were quickly dashed, however. The intensification of the civil war, Wrangel’s offensive and the invasion of Poland, the worsening famine, the catastrophic economic situation, the peasant revolts, cut these intentions off at root, “with…the ruined state of the economy, the demoralisation of the people, the increasing isolation of a devastated country and an exhausted nation, the very basis for a revival of the soviets was no longer present.[19]

The Kronstadt uprising in March 1921, with its demand for completely renewed soviets effectively exercising power, was the final death agony; its suppression by the Bolshevik Party signalled the almost certain death of the soviets as workers’ organs.[20]

The Civil War and the creation of the Red Army

Why was it that in contrast with September 1917 the soviets were now fighting an uphill battle they couldn’t win? Though only the development of world revolution could have provided the oxygen needed for the movement to survive, we will nonetheless examine the other “internal” factors that played a part. In brief, there are to two key, strongly interconnected factors: the civil war and famine on the one hand and the economic chaos on the other.

Let’s begin with the civil war.[21] The war was organised by the major imperialist powers: Britain, France, the United States, Japan, etc., who united their troops into a heterogeneous body of armed forces, “the Whites”, allied with the defeated Russian bourgeoisie. This war devastated the country until 1921 and caused more than 6 million deaths and incalculable destruction. The Whites carried out unprecedented sadistic and cruel reprisals. “the White Terror was partly responsible for this, of course, since victories by the counter-revolutionary forces were usually accompanied not only by the massacring of large numbers of Communists but also by extermination of the most active members of the soviets, and in any case, by suppression of the latter.[22]

Here we see the first reason why the soviets were undermined. The White Army suppressed the soviets and indiscriminately murdered all their members.

But more complex causes were attached to these massacres. In response to the war, the Council of People’s Commissars in April-May 1918 made two important decisions: the formation of the Red Army and the establishment of the Cheka, the organ responsible for rooting out counter-revolutionary conspiracies. It was the first time the Council made a decision without prior discussion with the soviets, or at least with the Executive Committee.

The creation of a Cheka as a policing organ was inevitable after the revolution. Counter-revolutionary plots followed one after the other, as much from the Right Socialist-Revolutionaries, the Mensheviks and the Cadets as from the monarchist Black Hundreds and Cossacks, encouraged by British and French agents. As soon as the war began the organisation of a Red Army was also imperative.

These two structures – the Cheka and the Red Army – were not simple tools that could be brought out as and when necessary, they were state organs and, as such, from the point of view of the proletariat double-edged swords; the working class would be forced to use them up until its decisive victory worldwide, but their utilisation presented serious dangers because they tended to take on an independent life vis-à-vis proletarian power.

Why then was an army created, when the proletariat had a soviet military organ that had led the insurgency, the Military Revolutionary Committee?[23]

From September 1917 the Russian army openly began to disintegrate. As soon as peace was declared, the soldiers’ councils rapidly demobilised. The only thing that mattered to the majority of soldiers was returning to their villages. Paradoxical as it may seem, the soldiers’ councils – but to a lesser extent the sailors’ too – that were widespread after the seizure of power by the soviets, concentrated on disbanding the army, avoiding the unruly flight of conscripts and reprimanding bands of soldiers who were using their weapons to rob and terrorise the population. In early January 1918 the army no longer existed. Russia was at the mercy of the German army. The peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk did however allow time for the army to be effectively reorganised to defend the revolution.

At its inception, the Red Army was an army of volunteers. Middle class and peasant youth didn’t enrol and the initial core was made up of workers from the factories and the big cities. This led to a real blood-letting in the ranks of the working class, that had to sacrifice its best elements in a bloody and cruel war: “We know that because of the war the best workers were withdrawn in large numbers from the cities, and that therefore at times it becomes difficult in one or another provincial or district capital to form a soviet and make it function.”[24]

Here we see the second reason for the crisis of the soviets: their best elements were absorbed by the Red Army. To get a real idea of this, in April 1918 Petrograd mobilised 25,000 volunteers, the vast majority of them militant workers, and Moscow 15,000, while the whole country had 106,000 volunteers in total.

As to the third cause of this crisis, it was none other than the Red Army itself that regarded the soviets as an obstacle. It tended to avoid their control and asked the central government to prevent them from interfering in its affairs. It also rejected offers of support from the soviets’ own military units (Red Guards, guerrillas). The Council of People’s Commissars conceded all the army’s demands.

Why did a body created to defend the soviets turn against them? The army is a state organ whose existence and functioning necessarily have social consequences, as it imposes a blind discipline, a rigid hierarchy in its general staff, with an officer corps who only recognise the authority of the government. To alleviate this tendency a network of political commissars was established from trusted workers responsible for controlling the officers. Unfortunately the effects of this measure were very limited and even counterproductive, since this network became in turn an additional layer of bureaucracy.

Not only did the Red Army continue to evade control by the soviets, it also imposed its methods of militarisation over society as a whole, restricting even more, if it was possible, the lives of its members. In his book The ABC of Communism, Preobrazhensky even talks of the proletariat’s military dictatorship!

The imperatives of war and the blind submission to the demands of the Red Army led the government to form a Military Revolutionary Committee in the summer of 1918, which had nothing in common with the one that led the October Revolution, as demonstrated by the fact that its first decision was to appoint local revolutionary committees to impose control on the soviets. “A decision by the Council of People’s Commissars forced the soviets to comply unconditionally with the instructions of these committees.[25]

The Red Army, like the Cheka, gradually ceased to serve the cause for which they were conceived, as weapons to defend the power of the soviets, and in establishing their independence and autonomy, finally turned against the soviets. If the Cheka initially reported to the local soviets and attempted to collaborate with them, the expeditious methods for which they were renowned would quickly prevail and impose themselves on soviet society. “On August 28th, 1918, the headquarters of the Cheka actually instructed its local agencies to refuse to submit to any interference by the soviets: on the contrary, it was these local agencies that were to impose their will upon the soviet bodies. They succeeded in doing this in the many areas that were affected by military operations.[26]

The Cheka eroded the power of the soviets so much that in November 1918 a survey revealed that 96 soviets were demanding the dissolution of Cheka sections, 119 asked for them to be subordinated to the legal soviet institutions and only 19 approved of their actions. This survey was completely useless though as the Cheka continued to accumulate new powers. “‘All power to the soviets’ has ceased to be the principle on which the regime is based, declared a member of the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs; it has been replaced by a new rule:‘All power to the Cheka’”.[27]

Famine and economic chaos

The World War bequeathed a terrible legacy. The productive apparatus of the majority of European countries was in a feeble state, the distribution network for consumer goods and food was highly dislocated when not completely paralysed. “Food consumption had in general decreased by about thirty or forty percent. The situation for the Allies was better, thanks to American support. The winter of 1917-1918 was still a harsh one with rigorous rationing and a fuel crisis in Britain and France.”[28]

Russia had suffered cruelly from this situation. The October Revolution had not been able to advance, especially as powerful disruptive forces were at work: systematic sabotage extensively carried out not just by business leaders who, rather than provide the proletariat with the tools needed for production, preferred to pursue a scorched earth policy, but also by entire layers of technicians, managers and even highly skilled workers hostile to soviet power. After taking power the soviets were confronted by a massive strike of public servants, telegraph and railway workers, manipulated by the Menshevik-led unions. This strike was fomented and organised through the union apparatus by “a shadow government [which] was functioning, presided over by Mr. Prokopovich, who had officially taken over the succession from Kerensky, who was said to have ‘resigned’. This clandestine Cabinet directed the strike of officials in concert with a strike committee. The large firms of industry, commerce and banking, such as the Rural Bank of Tula, the Moscow Popular Bank and the Bank of the Caucasus, continued to pay their officials who were out on strike. The former All-Russian Soviet Executive (Mensheviks and SR) used its funds, stolen from the working class, for the same purpose.[29]

This sabotage added to the widespread economic chaos made rapidly worse by the civil war. How could the famine ravaging the cities be fought? How could supplies of basic necessities be maintained?

Here we see the disastrous consequences of what happened in 1918: the social coalition that overthrew the bourgeois government in October 1917 disintegrated. Soviet power was a “coalition” of the workers’, peasants’ and soldiers’ soviets all practically on an equal footing. With few exceptions the soviets had almost disappeared by the end of 1917, leaving soviet power with no army. But what happened to the peasants’ soviets which were key to ensuring regular supplies to the cities?

The decree on land allocation adopted by the Second Congress of Soviets was surrounded by much confusion, and countless abuses were tolerated and, even though many poor farmers did acquire a plot, the big winners were the rich and middle peasants who greatly increased their holdings. This led to their almost total domination of the peasant soviets. Self-interest typified by private ownership was encouraged. “The peasant received in exchange for his corn only paper roubles with which he could buy nothing except an ever more restricted supply of manufactured articles, and these with a great difficulty; and so he resorted to barter: foodstuffs against goods. A whole host of small speculators operated as middlemen between him and the town.”[30] The peasants only sold their produce to speculators who hoarded it, thus exacerbating the shortages and the inflated prices.[31]

In June 1918, a decree of the soviet government created some committees of poor peasants to combat this situation. They would be a means of bringing the peasant soviets closer to the proletariat by organising the class struggle in the countryside, but it was also an attempt to create shock troops who would requisition the cereals and foods needed to alleviate the terrible famine in the cities.

These committees were specifically assigned, “[along with] armed detachments of factory workers to confiscate grain from the wealthier peasants, to requisition livestock and tools, to distribute them among the rural poor and even to redistribute land.”[32] The results of this experience were largely negative. They were neither able to guarantee supplies to the starving cities nor to revive the peasants’ soviets. And the irony is that in 1919 the Bolsheviks changed their policy to try to gain the support of the middle peasants and forcibly disbanded the committees of poor peasants.

Under modern capitalist production the supply of agricultural products is dependent on the existence of an extensive transport system that is highly mechanised and highly reliant on a wide range of basic industries. In this respect, feeding the starving population was hindered by the widespread collapse of the productive industrial apparatus due to the war and exacerbated by economic sabotage and the outbreak of civil war in April 1918.

The factory councils could have had a decisive role. As we saw in the previous article in this series, they played a very important vanguard role for the soviet system. They could have also helped in fighting the sabotage of the capitalists and preventing shortages and paralysis.

Moreover they did try to collaborate in setting up a central organ to control production and to fight against sabotage and paralysis of the transport system: “After the October Revolution the central councils of factory committees from various cities attempted to form their own national organisation to secure actual economic dictatorship”,[33] but Bolshevik policy was opposed to it. It concentrated the management of the enterprises in the hands of a body of officials subordinated to executive power, and for the first time accompanied it with measures to restore piecework, which resulted in a brutal militarisation which reached its highest levels in 1919-20. It also strengthened the unions. This body of officials, fiercely opposed to the factory councils, led an intense campaign that saw factory councils disappear in late 1918. Anweiler says that “The unions prevented the convocation of an all-Russian congress of factory committees and instead absorbed the factory committees at the lowest level.” [34]

Bolshevik policy attempted to fight the tendency of some factory councils, particularly in the provinces, to see themselves as new owners and as independent and autonomous units. This tendency partly arose from “the difficulty establishing regular channels of distribution and exchange, which left many factories and production centres isolated. So factories appeared very like “anarchist communes”, very inward-looking.[35]

The tendency towards decomposition in the Russian working class

Clearly these developments encouraged divisions in the working class. But the course of events could have been fought through debates inside the factory councils themselves where, as we have seen, a global vision was present. Relying on the unions contributed to destroying these organisations that were the cornerstone of proletarian power and broadly favoured the exacerbation of a fundamental political problem in the early years of soviet power, which was obscured by the enthusiasm of those initial months: “the progressive weakening of the Russian working class, a loss of strength and substance that was to end in its almost complete de-classing and, in a certain sense, its temporary disappearance from the scene.[36]

In April 1918, 265 of the 799 main industrial businesses based in Petrograd had disappeared, half of workers in this city had no work; its population in June 1918 was one and a half million, down from two and a half million one year earlier. Moscow lost half a million people in this short period.

The working class was suffering from hunger and the most terrifying diseases. Jacques Sadoul, a Bolshevik sympathiser, described the situation in Moscow in the spring of 1918: “in the districts away from the centre, frightful poverty prevails. There are epidemics of typhus, smallpox, children’s diseases. Babies are dying en-masse. Those one sees are weak, fleshless, pitiful creatures. In the working-class quarters one too often passes poor, pale, thin mothers, sadly bearing in their arms, in a little coffin of silver-painted wood, looking like a cradle, the tiny lifeless body that a small quantity of bread or milk would have kept alive.”[37]

Many workers fled to the countryside to devote themselves to precarious farm work. The terrifying pressure of famine, disease, rationing and queues meant that workers were forced to spend the whole day trying to survive. As a Petrograd worker in April 1918 testified, “Here is another crowd of workers who have been fired. Although we are thousands, we do not hear a word about the policy; nobody talks about revolution, of German imperialism, or any other current issue. For all these men and all these women who can barely stand, all these issues seem terribly remote.[38]

The unfolding crisis of the Russian working class was so alarming that in October 1921 Lenin approved the NEP,[39] saying that “The capitalists will gain from our policy and will create an industrial proletariat, which in our country, owing to the war and to the desperate poverty and ruin, has become declassed, i.e., dislodged from its class groove, and has ceased to exist as a proletariat.”[40]

We have presented a whole range of general conditions which, added to the inevitable errors, weakened the soviets and contributed to their disappearance as workers’ organs. In the next article in this series, we will discuss the political problems that contributed to making the situation worse.

C. Mir 1/9/10.



[1]. See International Reviews, n°s 140, 141, 142.

[2]. Lenin, Letter to the American workers, 20 August 1918, Lenin, On the United States of America, Progress, 1967, p.345.

[3]. Quoted by Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin (Merlin Press, 1975), p.335.This is an interesting and well-documented work by a non-communist writer. Whenever possible the quotes from this book have been taken from the English translation published by Merlin Press. However, this is a shortened and revised version of the French original and does not contain some of the passages quoted. Where this is the case the translations have been made by the ICC.

[4]. There was a previous phase in the life of capitalism, when it was still a progressive system, when parliament was a place where different fractions of the bourgeoisie unified or fought over the government of society. The proletariat had to participate and try and influence the actions of the bourgeoisie in defence of its own interests and do it despite the dangerous illusions in the system this could entail. However, even at this time, the three powers were still divorced from the vast majority of people.

[5]. Quoted by Victor Serge, militant anarchist convert to Bolshevism, in Year One of the Russian Revolution, p.83, chapter 3, subheading: “The Great Decrees: Peace”, Allan Lane Penguin Press.

[6]. Oskar Anweiler, The soviets: Russian workers, peasants and soldiers councils, 1905-1921, p.208, Chapter 5, “The Constituent Assembly or Soviet Republic”.

[7]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., French edition, p.31.

[8]. A large number of discussions took place around events in Germany, including news of strikes and mutinies.

[9]. Oskar Anweiler, op. cit., p.219, Chapter 5, part 2 “The Bolshevik Social System” part (a).

[10]. Victor Serge, op. cit., p.95, Chapter 3, subheading: “The initiative of the masses”.

[11]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., p.270.

[12]. This treaty was signed between the soviet power and the German state in March 1918. By granting major concessions, the soviet power achieved a truce which allowed it to survive and sent a clear signal to the international proletariat of its desire to end the war. See our articles: “October 17: Start of the proletarian revolution”, part 2, International Review n°13, 1978 and “Communism, not a nice idea but a material necessity”, part VIII: “Understanding the defeat of the Russian Revolution”, International Review n° 99, 1999.

[13]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., French edition, p.176.

[14]. See the series in International Review n°142, “The Revolution of 1917...”, subheading “September 1917, the total renewal of the soviets”.

[15]. We should make clear that these measures were not accompanied by restricting the freedom of the press. In his book cited above, Victor Serge affirms that “The proletarian dictatorship hesitated a long time before suppressing the enemy press. (…) it was only in July 1918 that the last organs of the bourgeoisie and petty-bourgeoisie were closed down. The legal press of the Mensheviks only disappeared in 1919; the press of the anarchists hostile to the regime, and the Maximalists appeared down to 1921; that of the Left Socialist-Revolutionaries later still. (Footnote on p.103, Chapter 3, subheading: “Proletarian realism and 'revolutionary' rhetoric”.

[16]. Oskar Anweiler, op. cit., p.235, Chapter 5, part 2, “The Bolshevik Social System” part (b).

[17]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., p.231. Zinoviev, a leading Bolshevik, had great qualities and played a large part in the creation of the Communist International. He was however renowned for his craftiness and manoeuvring.

[18]. Ibid, p.230-1

[19]. Ibid p.231.

[20]. We aren't able to give a detailed analysis of the Kronstadt events here, or their meaning and the lessons we draw. See International Review n° 3, 1975, “The lessons of Kronstadt” and International Review n°104, 2001, “Understanding Kronstadt”, and

[21]. See Victor Serge, op. cit., for an account of the civil war in 1918.

[22]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., p.229.

[23]. See International Review n°142, “The Revolution of 1917 (from July to October), from the revival of the workers' councils to the seizure of power”, subheading “The Military Revolutionary Committee, soviet organ of the insurrection”,

[24]. Speech of Kamenev, quoted by Oskar Anweiler, op. cit., p.235.

[25]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., French edition, p.33.

[26]. Ibid, page 229.

[27]. Ibid, French edition, p.164.

[28]. Victor Serge, op. cit., p.145, Chapter 5, “The Problem in January 1918”.

[29]. Victor Serge, op. cit., p.94, Chapter 3, “Sabotage”.

[30]. Ibid, p.94, Chapter 6, “The Problem”.

[31]. Ibid. Victor Serge underlines that one of the policies of the unions consisted in creating cooperatives which were devoted to speculating on food to the great benefit of their members.

[32]. Oskar Anweiler, op. cit., p.237, “The Bolshevik Social System” part (b).

[33]. Oskar Anweiler, op. cit., p.221, Chapter 5, part 2 “The Bolshevik Social System” part (a).

[34]. Ibid.

[35]. Marcel Liebman, op. cit., French edition, p.189.

[36]. Ibid, p.223.

[37]. Ibid.

[38]. Ibid, French edition, p.23.

[39] NEP, New Economic Policy, introduced in March 1921 after the events around Kronstadt, made large concessions to the peasantry and to national and foreign capital. See International Review n° 101, in the series “Communism is not a just a nice idea”, the article entitled “1922-23, the Communist fractions against the rise of counter-revolution”.

[40]. Lenin, Collected Works, 2nd English Edition, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1965, Vol.33, pp.60-79.


History of the workers' movement: 

Heritage of the Communist Left: 


Working class history

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

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.

Historic events: 


General and theoretical questions: 


The Communist Left in Russia: Manifesto of the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party (Part 2)

We published the first part of the Manifesto in the last issue of the International Review. To recall, the Workers’ Group of the Russian Communist Party, which produced this Manifesto, formed part of what is called the communist left, constituted by the left currents that appeared in response to the opportunist degeneration of the parties of the Third International and of soviet power in Russia.

The following two chapters of this document published below form a sharpened critique of the opportunist united front policy and the workers’ government slogan. Placing this critique in its historical context, the Manifesto should be read as an attempt to understand the implications of the change in historical period; the new period had rendered null and void all policies of alliance with fractions of the bourgeoisie since from now on these were all equally reactionary. Similarly, any alliance with organisations like social democracy, which had already proved its treason, could only lead to a weakening of the proletariat. Further, the Manifesto is perfectly clear on the fact that, in the new period, the struggle for reforms is no longer on the agenda. However, the speed with which these considerable historical changes had taken place did not permit even the clearest revolutionaries to gain the perspective necessary to profoundly understand all the precise implications. This was also the case with the Workers’ Group, which did not make a distinction between the struggle for reforms and the defensive economic struggle of the proletariat faced with the permanent encroachments of capital. While not refusing to participate in the latter, out of solidarity, it considered that only the seizure of power was able to liberate the proletariat from its chains, without taking into account the fact that the political and economic struggle form a whole.

Finally, faced with the restrictions on freedom of speech imposed on the proletariat, even after the end of the civil war, the Manifesto responds very firmly and lucidly when addressing itself to the leaders: “How can you solve the great task of the organisation of the social economy without the proletariat?


The socialist united front

Before examining the essential content of this question, it is necessary to remind ourselves of the conditions in which the theses of comrade Zinoviev on the united front were debated and accepted in Russia. From the 19th to the 21st of December 1921, the 12th Conference of the RCP (Bolshevik) took place, during which the question of the united front was posed. Up until then nothing on this subject had been written in the press or discussed in the meetings of the party. However, at the conference, comrade Zinoviev unleashed some crude attacks and the conference was so surprised that it immediately gave way and approved the theses with raised hands. We recall these circumstances not to offend anyone but to first of all draw attention to the facts that: 1) the tactic of the united front was discussed in a very hasty fashion, almost “militarily”; 2) in Russia it was carried out in a quite particular fashion.

The RCP (Bolshevik) was the promoter of this tactic within the Comintern (CI).[1] It convinced foreign comrades that we Russian revolutionaries had succeeded precisely thanks to this tactic of the united front and that it had been built up in Russia on the basis of the experience of the whole pre-revolutionary epoch and particularly from the experience of the struggle of the Bolsheviks against the Mensheviks.

Comrades coming from different countries simply knew the fact that the Russian proletariat had won, and they wanted to do the same to their bourgeoisies. Now they were persuaded that the Russian proletariat had conquered thanks to the tactic of the united front. They could do no other since they did not know the history of the Russian revolution. Once comrade Lenin had very severely condemned those who trusted in simple words, but he didn’t really want anyone to take him up on these particular words.

What lesson can we thus draw from the experience of the Russian revolution?

In one epoch the Bolsheviks supported a progressive movement against autocracy:

a) social-democrats must support the bourgeoisie in so far as it is revolutionary or even merely oppositional in its struggle against Tsardom;

b) therefore, social-democrats must welcome the awakening of political consciousness in the Russian bourgeoisie; but, on the other hand, they are obliged to unmask before the proletariat the limited and inadequate character of the bourgeois liberation movement, wherever this limitedness and inadequacy shows itself (Resolution of the IInd Congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, ‘Attitude to the liberals’, August 1903).

The resolution of the IIIrd Congress, held in April 1905, reproduced these two points in recommending to comrades:

1) to explain to workers the counter-revolutionary and anti-proletarian nature of the bourgeois democratic current, regardless of its nuances, from the moderate liberals represented by the vast layers of large landowners and manufacturers to the most radical current known as the “Emancipation Union” and the varied groups of the liberal professions;

2) to fight vigorously against any attempt on the part of bourgeois democracy to recuperate the workers’ movement and to speak in the name of the proletariat and its various groups. Since 1898 social democracy had been favourable to a “united front” (as they say now) with the bourgeoisie. But this united front had three phases:

1) in 1901, social democracy supported all “progressive movements” opposed to the existing regime;

2) in 1903, it recognised the need to go beyond the “limits of the movement of the bourgeoisie”;

3) in 1905, in April, it took concrete steps “in strongly advising comrades to denounce the counter-revolutionary and anti-proletarian nature of the bourgeois democratic current, of all shades”, and to energetically combat its influence on the proletariat.

But whatever the forms of support to the bourgeoisie, it is without doubt that during a certain period, before 1905, the Bolsheviks formed a united front with the bourgeoisie.

And what are we to think of a “revolutionary” who, based on the Russian experience, would propose a united front with the bourgeoisie today?

In September 1905, the Conference convoked specially to debate the question of the “Boulyguine Duma” defined the attitude of the latter towards the bourgeoisie in the following way: “By this illusion of a representation of the people, the autocracy aspires to attach a large part of the bourgeoisie that has grown weary of the labour movement and desires order; in assuring its interest and support, the autocracy intends to crush the revolutionary movement of the proletariat and the peasantry.”

The resolution the Bolsheviks proposed to the RSDLP Unification Congress (April 1906) revealed the secret of the Bolsheviks’ change of policy, from its previous support for the bourgeoisie to a struggle against it: “As for the class of large capitalists and landowners, one can see their very swift passage from opposition to an arrangement with the autocracy to together crush the revolution”. As “the main task of the working class at the current time of the democratic revolution is the completion of this revolution”, it should form a “united front” with parties who also want this. For this reason, the Bolsheviks renounced any agreement with the parties to the right of the Cadets and signed pacts with the parties to their left, the Social-Revolutionaries (SRs), Popular Socialists (NS) and the Trudoviks, therefore building “a socialist united front” in the struggle for the consistent advance of the democratic revolution.

Was the Bolsheviks’ tactic right at this time? We do not believe that among active combatants of the October revolution there are people disputing the correctness of this tactic. We therefore see that from 1906 to 1917 inclusive, the Bolsheviks advocated “a socialist united front” in the struggle for the consistent advance of the democratic revolution achieved by the formation of a Provisional Revolutionary Government which convened a Constituent Assembly.

No one ever considered, nor could consider, this revolution as proletarian or socialist; all well understood that it was bourgeois-democratic. Nevertheless, the Bolsheviks proposed and themselves followed the tactic of a “socialist united front” by uniting in practice with the SRs, the Mensheviks, the Populists and Trudoviks.

What was the tactic of the Bolsheviks when the question posed was whether we should struggle for the democratic revolution or for the socialist revolution? Did the struggle for the power of the soviets also perhaps demand the “socialist united front”?

Revolutionary marxists still consider the party of the Social-Revolutionaries to be a “bourgeois democratic fraction” with “ambiguous socialist phraseology”; which has been confirmed in large measure by its activity throughout the revolution and up to the present. As a bourgeois democratic fraction, this party cannot take on the practical task of a struggle for the socialist revolution, for socialism; but it tries, using an “ambiguous socialist” terminology, to hold back this struggle at any price. If this is so (and it is so) the tactic which must lead the insurgent proletariat to victory cannot be that of the socialist united front, but that of bloody combat, without circumspection, against the bourgeois fractions and their confusing socialist terminology. Only this combat can bring victory and it must be done in this way. The Russian proletariat has won, not by allying itself with the Social Revolutionaries, with the Populists and the Mensheviks, but by struggling against them. 

It’s true that toward October, the Bolsheviks succeeded in splitting the SRs[2] and the Mensheviks[3] by releasing the worker masses from the captivity of their obfuscating socialist terminology, and were able to take advantage of these splits, but that can hardly be regarded as a united front with bourgeois fractions.

What does the Russian experience teach us?

1) In certain historical moments, a united front with the bourgeoisie should be formed in countries where the country or the situation is more or less similar to that which existed in Russia before 1905.

2) In countries where the situation is somewhat similar to that in Russia between 1906 and 1917, it is necessary to abandon the tactic of a united front with the bourgeoisie and follow the tactic of a “socialist united front”.

In countries where there is a direct struggle for proletarian power, it is necessary to abandon the tactic of the “socialist united front” and warn the proletariat that “the bourgeois fractions with ambiguous socialist phraseology” – at the present time all parties of the Second International – will at the crucial moment march arms in hand for the defence of the capitalist system.

It is necessary, for the unification of all the revolutionary elements which have the aim of overthrowing world capitalist exploitation, that they align with the German Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD), the Dutch Communist Workers’ Party and other parties that adhere to the 4th International.[4] All the authentic proletarian revolutionary elements must detach themselves from the forces that imprison them: the parties of the Second International, the Two-and-a-half International [5] and their “ambiguous socialist phraseology”. The victory of the world revolution is impossible without a principled rupture and a relentless struggle against the bourgeois caricatures of socialism. The opportunists and social-chauvinists, as servants of the bourgeoisie, and consequently direct enemies of the proletarian class, become, more especially today, linked to the capitalists, to the armed oppressors in their own country and abroad (Cf. programme of the RCP Bolshevik). This is the truth about the tactic of the socialist united front which, as backed up by the theses of the Executive of the CI, is supposed to be based on the experience of the Russian revolution, whereas, in reality, it is an opportunist tactic. Such a tactic of collaboration with the declared enemies of the working class who carry out armed oppression against the revolutionary proletariat in their own and other countries is in open contradiction to the experience of the Russian revolution. In order to remain under the banner of the social revolution, we must make a “united front” against the bourgeoisie and its socialist servants.

As above, the tactic of the “socialist united front” retains its revolutionary value in the countries where the proletariat struggles against autocracy, supported by the bourgeoisie and for the bourgeois democratic revolution.

And where the proletariat still fights autocracy which is also opposed by the bourgeoisie, it should follow the “united front” tactic with the bourgeoisie.

When the Comintern requires the communist parties of all countries to follow at all costs the tactic of the socialist united front, it is a dogmatic requirement which interferes with the resolution of practical tasks in accordance with the conditions of each country and undoubtedly harms the whole revolutionary movement of the proletariat.

Regarding the theses of the Executive of the Communist International

The theses, which were published in Pravda, clearly show that the “theoreticians” understood the idea of a “socialist united front” to be an expression of just two words: “united front”. Everyone knows how “popular” in Russia in 1917 were the social traitors of every country and in particular Scheidemann, Noske and co. The Bolsheviks, the rank and file elements of the party who had little experience, shouted at every corner: “You perfidious traitors of the working class, we will hang you from the telegraph poles. You bear the responsibility for the international bloodbath in which you have drowned the workers of every country. You have assassinated Rosa Luxemburg and Liebknecht. The streets of Berlin, thanks to your violent action, ran red with the blood of the workers who rose up against exploitation and capitalist oppression. You were the authors of the peace of Versailles, you have inflicted countless wounds on the international proletarian movement because you have betrayed it every time.”

We should also add that it wasn’t decided to propose to the communist workers the “socialist united front”, that's to say a united front with Noske, Scheidemann, Vandervelde, Branting and co. Such a united front must be disguised in one way or another and that is how it went. The theses are not simply entitled “the socialist united front”, but “theses on the united front of the proletariat and on the attitude vis-à-vis the workers belonging to the Second, and the Two-and-a-half Internationals and that of Amsterdam, similarly towards workers adhering to the anarchist and syndicalist organisations”. Why such a mouthful? You see comrade Zinoviev himself, who not long ago was inviting us to collaborate in the burial of the Second International, now invites us to a wedding feast with it. That's the reason for the long title. In reality it talks of agreement not with the workers but with the parties of the Second International and the Two-and-a-half International. Every worker knows, even if he has never been abroad, that the parties are represented by their central committee, on which sit the likes of Vandervelde, Branting, Scheidemann, Noske and co. Thus it is with them that agreement has to be established. Who is going to Berlin for the conference of the three Internationals? To whom has the Communist International given its heartfelt trust? The Wels’s, Vandervelde's, etc...

But have we tried to get an agreement with the KAPD, given that comrade Zinoviev agrees that the most precious proletarian elements are found there? No. And yet the KAPD fights in order to organise the conquest of power by the proletariat. 

It is true that in his theses comrade Zinoviev affirms that the aim wasn’t a fusion of the Communist International with the Second International: towards the latter, he reminds us of the necessity for organisational autonomy: “absolute autonomy and total independence to explain its positions for each communist party which concludes this or that agreement with the parties of the Second International and Two-and-a-half International”. Communists impose self-discipline in action but they must conserve the right and possibility – not only before and after but if necessary also during the action – of pronouncing on the politics of workers’ organisations without exception. In supporting the slogan of “maximum unity of all workers’ organisations in all practical action against the capitalist front, the communists cannot renounce defending their positions” (see the theses of the Comintern CC for the conference of the RCP in 1921).

Prior to 1906, in the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party, there were two fractions that had as much autonomy as provided for in the theses of the Comintern cited above.

Discipline in negotiations, and autonomy of judgment in the internal life of the party, are formally recognised by the statutes of the RCP (Bolshevik). One must do what the majority has decided and you can only exercise the right of criticism. Do what you are commanded, but if you’re really too outraged and convinced that one is involved in harming the world revolution, you can, before, during and after the action freely express your rage. This is tantamount to renouncing autonomous actions (rather like Vandervelde signing the Treaty of Versailles and compromising himself).

In these same theses, the Executive proposes the slogan of workers’ government which must be substituted for the dictatorship of the proletariat. What exactly is a workers’ government? It is a government made up of a central committee boiled down from the party; the ideal realisation of these theses occurs in Germany where President Ebert is a socialist and where governments are formed with his approval. Even if this formula is not accepted, communists must back with their votes the socialist prime ministers and presidents such as Branting in Sweden and Ebert in Germany.

Here is how we show our critical autonomy: the chairman of the Comintern, comrade Zinoviev, meets up with the CC of the Social Democratic Party and on seeing Ebert, Noske, Scheidemann, he raises his fists, shouting: “Turncoats, traitors of the working class!” They smile kindly and bow down before him. “You've murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, leaders of the German proletariat, we’ll hang you from the gibbet!” They smile at him even more kindly and bow down even lower.

Comrade Zinoviev offers them the united front and proposes to form a workers’ government with communist participation. Thus he exchanges the gallows for the ministerial armchair. Noske, Ebert, Scheidemann and co. will go to the workers’ assemblies and say that the CI has given them an amnesty and offered them ministerial posts in place of the gibbet. The condition is however, that the communists authorise a minister. [...].[6] They will say to the whole working class that the communists have recognised the possibility of realising socialism only by uniting with them and not against them. And they will add: Take a look at these people! They would have hung and buried us before; now they have come to us. So good, we forgive them because they have of course forgiven us. A mutual amnesty.

The Communist International has given the Second International a proof of its political sincerity and it has received a proof of political poverty. What's the origin of this change in reality? How is it that comrade Zinoviev offers to Ebert, to Scheidemann and to Noske ministerial armchairs instead of the gallows? Not so long ago they sang the funeral oration of the Second International and now they give it the kiss of life. Why does he now sing its praises? Do we really see its resurrection and do we really lay claim to it?

Zinoviev’s theses effectively respond to such a question: “the world economic crisis is becoming sharper, unemployment is growing, capital is going onto the offensive and is manoeuvring adroitly, the condition of the working class is compromised”. Thus a class war is inevitable and from this it flows that the working class is moving more to the left. Reformist illusions are being destroyed. The greater workers’ base is now beginning to appreciate the courage of the communist avant-garde... and from this fact... a united front with Scheidemann must be constituted. Diabolical! The conclusion is not coherent with the premise.

We wouldn't be objective if we didn’t relate some still more fundamental considerations that comrade Zinoviev puts forward in his theses in order to defend the united front. Comrade Zinoviev makes a marvelous discovery: “We know that the working class struggles for unity. And how does it achieve that other than through a united front with Scheidemann?” Every conscious worker who is not foreign to the interests of his class and of the world revolution can ask: does the working class begin to struggle for unity just at the moment when the necessity of the “united front” is affirmed? Whoever has lived among the workers since the class has entered the field of political struggle, knows the doubts which assail every worker: why do the Mensheviks, the Social Revolutionaries, the Bolsheviks, the Trudoviks (populists) fight among themselves? All desire the good of the people. So for what motives are they fighting each other? Every worker has doubts, but what conclusion must we draw from it? The working class must organise itself as an independent class and oppose all the others. Our petty-bourgeois prejudices must be overcome! Such was the truth and such it remains today.

In every capitalist country where a situation favourable to the socialist revolution presents itself, we must prepare the working class for the armed struggle against the international Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries. In this case, certainly, the experiences of the Russian revolution will have to be taken into consideration. The world working class must get into its head the idea that the socialists of the Second and the Two-and-a-half Internationals are and will be at the forefront of the counter-revolution. The propaganda for the united front with the social traitors of all nuances tends to the belief that they are also definitively fighting the bourgeoisie, for socialism and not the contrary. But only open, courageous propaganda, in favour of the civil war and the conquest of political power by the working class can interest the proletariat in the revolution.

The time when the working class could ameliorate its own material and juridical condition through strikes and parliament is definitively passed. This must be said openly. The struggle for the most immediate objectives is a struggle for power. We must show through our propaganda that, although on numerous occasions we have incited strikes, we haven’t really been able to ameliorate the condition of the workers, but you, workers, you have not yet gone beyond the old reformist illusion and are undertaking a struggle which weakens you. We can of course be in solidarity with you during strikes, but we will always come back to saying that these movements will not liberate you from slavery, from exploitation and the pangs of unabated need. The only way which will lead you to victory is the taking of power by your own calloused hands.

But this isn’t all. Comrade Zinoviev has decided to solidly justify the united front tactic: we were accustomed to understanding the notion of “the era of the social revolution” as being identical with the present moment, which means that the social revolution is on the agenda; but in practice it has been shown that “the era of the social revolution is a revolutionary process in the long term”. Zinoviev advises putting our feet on the ground and attracting the working masses. But we already attracted the masses by uniting ourselves in different ways with the Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries (SRs) from 1903 until 1917 and, as we have seen, we ended up by triumphing; that is why, he argues, to overcome Ebert, Scheidemann and Cie, we must not fight them, but unite with them.

We will not discuss whether the era of the social revolution is a long term process or not, and if it is, how much time it will take, because it would resemble a monks’ dispute on the sex of angels or a discussion aimed at finding out how many hairs you need to lose to be bald. We want to define the concept of “the era of the social revolution”. What is it? It is firstly the state of the material productive forces which begin to be incompatible with the form of property. Are there the necessary material conditions for the social revolution to be inevitable? Yes. Is something missing? Subjective, personal conditions are missing: the working class of the developed capitalist countries must still realise the need for this revolution, not in the distant future, but today, tomorrow. And for this, what must be done by the advanced workers, the avant-garde which has already realised this? Sound the tocsin, call for the battle by propaganda in favour of civil war using all kinds of things, (lockouts, strikes, the imminence of war, the lowering of living standards) and by preparing, by organising the working class for an immediate struggle.

Can one say that the Russian proletariat triumphed because it was united with the Mensheviks and the SRs? This is nonsense. The Russian proletariat defeated the bourgeoisie and landowners through its fierce fight against the Mensheviks and SRs.

In one of his speeches on the need for a united front tactic, comrade Trotsky said that we have triumphed, but must analyse how we are beaten. He argues that we marched in a united front with the Mensheviks and SRs because we ourselves, the Mensheviks and SRs sat in the same councils. If the united front tactic consists of sitting in the same institution, then the head of forced labour and the convicts are also in a united front: both are in prison.

Our communist parties sit in parliaments – does that mean we can say they are in a united front with all the deputies? Comrades Trotsky and Zinoviev should tell the communists of the entire world that the Bolsheviks had reason not to participate in the “pre-parliament” summoned by the Social Revolutionary Kerensky in August 1917, or the Provisional Government led by the socialists (which was a useful lesson), instead of saying rather dubious things about a so-called united front of the Bolsheviks, the Mensheviks and the SRs.

We have already mentioned the era where the Bolsheviks had a united front with the bourgeoisie. But when was this? Prior to 1905. Yes, the Bolsheviks advocated the united front with all the socialists – but when? Before 1917. And in 1917, when they were fighting for working class power, the Bolsheviks joined forces with all revolutionary elements, from the left SRs to the anarchists of all varieties, to fight arms in hand the Mensheviks and SRs who, themselves, were in a united front with so-called “democracy”, that is with the bourgeoisie and the landowners. In 1917, the Russian proletariat put itself at the forefront of “the era of the social revolution", in which the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries had already been living. And in which the victorious tactic of the Russian proletariat in 1917 should be used, taking account of the lessons of the ensuing years: fierce resistance on the part of the bourgeoisie, SRs and Mensheviks faced with the Russian working class which had taken power. It will be this tactic which unites the working class of the developed capitalist countries, since this class is in the process of “getting rid of reformist illusions”; it will not be the united front with the Second International and Two-and-a-half International which will bring victory, but the war against them. This is the slogan of the future world social revolution.

The question of the united front in countries where the proletariat has power (workers' democracy)

All the countries where the socialist assault has already taken place, where the proletariat is the ruling class, require a different approach each time. Note that one cannot develop a valid tactic for all stages of the revolutionary process in each different country, nor a policy for all countries at the same stage of the revolutionary process.

If we remember our own history (without going too far back), the history of our struggle, it will be seen that in fighting our enemies, we have used many different processes.

In 1906 and the following years, it was the “three pillars”: the 8-hour working day, land requisition and the democratic republic. These three pillars included freedom of speech and the press, freedom of association, strikes and unions, etc.

In February 1917? “Down with the autocracy, long live the Constituent Assembly!” This was the cry of the Bolsheviks.

However, in April-May, everything moves in another direction: there is freedom of association, of press and speech, but land is not requisitioned, workers are not in power. They then launch the slogan “All power to the soviets!”

At this time, any attempt by the bourgeoisie to shut our mouth was met by fierce resistance: “long live freedom of speech, press, association, strikes, unions, conscience! Seize the land! Workers’ control of production! Peace! Bread! Freedom! Long live the civil war!”

But then October and victory. Power to the working class. The old mechanism of state oppression is completely destroyed, the new mechanism of emancipation is structured in councils of workers’, soldiers’ deputies, etc.

At this time must the proletariat proclaim the slogan of freedom of the press, of speech, of association, of coalition? Could it allow these gentlemen, from monarchists to Mensheviks and SRs, to advocate civil war? More than that, could it, as a ruling class, grant freedom of speech and press to someone in this milieu who would advocate civil war? No and again no!

Any organised propaganda for civil war against the proletarian power would be a counter-revolutionary act in favour of the exploiters, the oppressors. The more “socialist” this propaganda was, the more harm it could have done. And for this reason, it was necessary to proceed with “the most severe, pitiless elimination of these propagandists of the same proletarian family”.

So there is the proletariat, capable of suppressing the resistance of the exploiters, of organising itself as the only power in the country, of building a national authority recognised even by all the capitalist governments. A new task is imposed on it: to organise the country's economy and create as many material goods as possible. And this task is as immense as the conquest of power and the suppression of the resistance of the exploiters. More than that, the conquest of power and suppression of the exploiters are not goals in themselves, but the means to socialism, to greater well-being and freedom than under capitalism, under the domination and oppression of one class by another.

To resolve this problem of the form of organisation and the means of action used to abolish the former oppressors, new approaches are needed.

In view of our scarce resources, in view of the horrible devastation caused by imperialist and civil wars, the task is imposed on us of creating material goods to demonstrate in practice to the working class and allied groups among the population the attractive force of this socialist society created by the proletariat. To show that it is good not only because there are no longer bourgeois, police and other parasites, but also because the proletariat has become master and is free, certain that all value, all goods, each blow of the hammer serves to improve life: the lives of the poor, the oppressed and the humiliated under capitalism. To show that this is not the kingdom of hunger, but one of abundance never seen anywhere else. This is a task that remains to be done by the Russian proletariat, a task that surpasses those preceding.

Yes, it surpasses these because the first two tasks, the conquest of power and the eradication of the resistance of the oppressors (taking into account the intense hatred of the proletariat and the peasantry towards the landowners and bourgeois), are certainly great, but less important than the third goal. And today all workers might ask: why was all this done? Should it do so much? Should it pay with so much blood? Should it undergo suffering without end? What will solve this problem? Who will be the architect of our fortune? What organisation will do it?

There are no supreme saviours,

Neither God, nor Caesar, nor tribune.

Producers, let us save ourselves!

Decree the common salvation!

To resolve this issue, we need an organisation that represents the unified will of the whole proletariat. We need the councils of workers’ deputies as well as industrial organisations in all enterprises taken over from the bourgeoisie (nationalised) which must spread their influence to the immense layers of fellow travellers.

But what at present are our councils? Do they resemble even a tiny bit the councils of workers’ deputies, i.e. “nuclei of state power in the plants and factories”? Do they resemble the councils of the proletariat which express its unified will to conquer? They have been emptied of their meaning, of an industrial base.

The long civil war that mobilised the attention of the proletariat towards the goals of destruction, of resistance to the oppressors, has postponed, erased all the other tasks and – without the proletariat noticing it – changed its organisation, the councils. The councils of workers’ deputies in the factories are dead. Long live the councils of workers’ deputies!

And is it not the same thing with the proletarian democracy in general? Do we need a similar attitude to the freedom of speech and press for the proletariat as at the time of the fierce civil war, of the revolt of the slave drivers? Is the proletariat, which took power, which was able to defend itself against a thousand terrible enemies, not to be allowed to express its thoughts now, on organising itself to overcome immense difficulties in production, on directing this production and the whole country?

The bourgeois are reduced to silence, certainly, but who will dare dispute the right of free speech for a proletarian who has defended his power without sparing his blood?

What is this freedom of speech and press for us, is it a god, a fetish?

We make for ourselves no idol

Neither on the earth, nor in the sky,

And we prostrate ourselves before no one.

For us, there is no real democracy, no absolute freedom as a fetish or idol, and even no real proletarian democracy.

Democracy was not and never will be a fetish for the counter-revolution, the bourgeoisie, the landowners, the priests, the SRs, and the Mensheviks of all countries of the world. For them, it is only a means to achieve their class goals.

Before 1917, freedom of speech and press for all citizens was our programmatic demand. In 1917, we conquered these freedoms and used them for propaganda and the organisation of the proletariat and its fellow travellers, including the intellectuals and the peasants. After organising a force capable of defeating the bourgeoisie, we, the proletarians, went to war and took power. In order to prevent the bourgeoisie from using freedom of speech and press to conduct the civil war against us, we denied freedom of speech and press not only to enemy classes, but also to a part of the proletariat and its fellow travellers – until the moment when the resistance of the bourgeoisie was broken in Russia.

But with the support of the majority of workers, we have ended the resistance of the bourgeoisie; can we now allow ourselves to talk amongst ourselves, the proletarians?

Freedom of speech and press before 1917, is one thing, in 1917 another, in 1918-20 a third and in 1921-22 a fourth type of attitude by our party towards this question is needed.

But can enemies of soviet power use these freedoms to overthrow it?

Perhaps these freedoms would be useful and necessary in Germany, France, England, etc., if these countries were in the same phase of the revolutionary process, because there is a large working class and there is no huge peasantry. But here, this small proletariat which has survived wars and economic disaster is worn, hungry, cold, bled white and exhausted; is it hard to push it over the edge, to the road leading to overthrow the soviet power? In addition to the proletariat, there is also in Russia a large part of the peasantry that is far from opulence, which barely lives. What guarantees are there that freedom of speech will not be used to form a counter-revolutionary force with this peasantry? No, when we have fed the worker a little, given something to the peasant, then we will see it, but now there is no way. This is more or less the reasoning of right-minded communists.

Allow us to pose a question: how can you solve the great task of the organisation of the social economy without the proletariat? Or else do you want to solve it with a proletariat which says yes and amen each time that its Good Shepherds want it to? Do you have any need of it?

“You worker and you peasant, remain calm, don’t protest, don’t reason because we have some brave types, who are also workers and peasants to whom we have confided power and who use it in a way that you wouldn’t credit; do all this and you will suddenly enter the socialist paradise”. To talk in this way signifies faith in individuals, in heroes, not in the class, because this grey mass with its mediocre ideas (at least the leaders think so) is nothing more than a material with which our heroes, the communist functionaries, will construct the communist paradise. We don't believe in heroes and appeal to all proletarians not to do so either. The liberation of the workers will only be the task of the workers themselves.

Yes, we proletarians, we are exhausted, hungry, cold and we are weary. But the problems we have in front of us, no class, no group of people can solve for us. We must do it ourselves. If you can show us that the tasks which await us can be accomplished by an Intelligence, even if it is a communist Intelligence, then we would agree to confide our proletarian destiny to you. But no-one can demonstrate that. For this reason it is not at all correct to maintain that the proletariat is tired and that it has no need of knowing or deciding anything.

If the situation in Russia is different in the years 1918-20, our attitude on this question must also be different.

When you, right minded communist comrades, you want to smash the face of the bourgeoisie, that’s fine, but the problem, is that you raise your hand to the bourgeoisie and it is us, the proletarians, who have broken ribs and a mouth full of blood.

In Russia, the communist working class does not exist. There simply exists a working class in which we can find Bolsheviks, anarchists, Social Revolutionaries and others (who don’t belong to these parties but draw from their orientations). How should one relate to it? With the bourgeois “Cadets” (constitutional democrats), professors, lawyers, doctors, no negotiation; for them one remedy: the stick. But it's quite another thing with the working class. We must not intimidate it, but influence it and guide it intellectually. For that no violence, but the clarification of our line of march, of our law.

Yes, the law is the law, but not for everyone. At the last party conference, in the discussion on the struggle against bourgeois ideology, it appeared that in Moscow and Petrograd there were 180 bourgeois publishing houses and it was intended, according to the declarations of Zinoviev, that we would combat this not with repressive measures but 90% through our openly ideological influence. But how do they want to “influence” us? Zinoviev knows how he is trying to influence some of us. If only we had less than a tenth of the freedom enjoyed by the bourgeoisie!

What do you think, comrade workers? It is not bad at all, is it not? Therefore, from 1906 to 1917 was one tactic, in 1917 before October another, from October 1917 until late 1920 a third and, since the beginning of 1921 a fourth. […]


(To be continued)


Part 1

Part 3


[1]. Editor’s note: Comintern, Russian name of the Third or Communist International.

[2]. Editor’s note: the Left Social Revolutionaries (“Left SRs”), favourable to the soviets, separated themselves from the Social Revolutionary Party in September 1917.

[3]. At the Congress of the Soviets on 25th October 1917, 110 Menshevik delegates, a minority (out of 673), left the room at the moment of the ratification of the October revolution, denouncing it as a “Bolshevik coup d’etat.

[4]. Editor’s note: that is, the KAI (Communist Workers’ International), 1922-24, founded on the initiative of the KAPD, and not to be confused with the Trotskyist Fourth International.

[5]. Editor’s note: the International Union of Socialist parties was nicknamed the Two-and-a-half International, “because it situated itself between the Second and the Third”. See the critique made of this regroupment in Alfred Rosmer’s Lenin’s Moscow (Pluto Press, 1971), in the chapter ‘The delegates of the Third International in Berlin’.


[6]. Editors’ note: Here as elsewhere in the text the symbols […] indicate that a short passage that we have not been able to translate has been deleted.




Heritage of the Communist Left: 

Development of proletarian consciousness and organisation: 



Working class history

2011 - 144 to 147

Index of International Reviews Published in 2011

International Review no.144 - 1st Quarter 2011

France, Britain, Tunisia: The future lies in the international development of the class struggle

The strikes and demonstrations of September, October and November in France, which took place following the reform of pensions, demonstrated a real fighting spirit in the ranks of the proletariat, even if they didn’t succeed in pushing back the attacks of the bourgeoisie.

This movement is taking place in the context of a renewed dynamic of our class as it gradually returns to the path of struggle internationally, following a course marked in 2009 and 2010 by the revolt of new generations of proletarians fighting poverty in Greece and by the determination of the Tekel workers in Turkey to extend their struggle against the sabotage of the unions.

Thus, students have mobilised in large numbers against the unemployment and job insecurity that capitalism has in store for them, as in Great Britain, Italy or the Netherlands. In the United States, despite being confined by the union straitjacket, several major strikes have broken out in various parts of the country since Spring 2010 in opposition to attacks: education workers in California, nurses in Philadelphia and Minneapolis-St-Louis, construction workers in Chicago, workers in the food industry in New York State, teachers in Illinois, workers at Boeing and in a Coca-Cola plant in Bellevue (Washington state), and dockers in New Jersey and Philadelphia.

At the time of going to press, in the Maghreb, and particularly in Tunisia, workers’ anger that has built up over decades spread like wildfire after 17th December when a young unemployed graduate set himself on fire in public after the fruit and vegetable stall that was his livelihood, was confiscated by the municipal police of Sidi Bouzid in the centre of Tunisia. Spontaneous demonstrations of solidarity spread throughout the country, where the population faces high unemployment and sharp increases in prices of basic foodstuffs. A fierce and brutal repression of this social movement led to dozens being killed, with police firing live ammunition at unarmed demonstrators. This only strengthened the outrage and resolve of the proletariat, firstly to demand work, bread and a little dignity and then the departure of President Ben Ali. “We are no longer afraid”, chanted the demonstrators in Tunisia. The children of proletarians took the lead and used the Internet or their mobile phones not only as weapons to broadcast and denounce the repression and to exchange information between themselves, but also to communicate with their family or friends outside the country, particularly in Europe, thus partially breaking the conspiracy of silence of all the bourgeoisies and their media. Everywhere our exploiters have tried to hide the class nature of this social movement, seeking to distort it by sometimes showing it to be like the riots that occurred in France in 2005 or as the work of vandals and looters, or sometimes presenting it as a “heroic and patriotic struggle of the Tunisian people” for “democracy” led by educated graduates and the “middle classes”.

The economic crisis and the bourgeoisie are striking blows all over the world. In Algeria, Jordan and China, similar social movements faced with sinking into poverty have been brutally repressed. This situation should push the more experienced proletarians of the central countries into seeing the impasse and bankruptcy into which the capitalist system is leading the whole of humanity, and into extending solidarity to their class brothers by developing their own struggles. And workers are indeed beginning to react gradually and are refusing to accept austerity, impoverishment and the “sacrifices” being imposed.

At present, this response clearly falls below the level of the attacks we are all being subjected to. That is undeniable. But there is a momentum under way and workers’ reflections and militancy will continue to grow. As proof we are again seeing minorities seeking to organise themselves, to actively contribute to the development of large-scale struggles and to escape the grip of the unions.

The mobilisation against pension reform in France

The social movement in France last autumn provides clear confirmation of the same dynamic as the previous movement that developed against the CPE.[1]

Millions of workers and employees from every sector routinely took to the streets of France. Alongside this, strikes broke out in various places from the beginning of September, some more radical than others, expressing a deep and growing discontent. This mobilisation is the first large-scale struggle in France since the crisis that shook the world financial system in 2007-2008. It is not only a response to pension reform itself but, in its scale and profundity, it is clearly a response to the violent attacks suffered in recent years. Behind this reform and other simultaneous or planned attacks, there is the growing refusal of all proletarians and other layers of the population to accept greater poverty, insecurity and destitution. And with the inexorable deepening of the economic crisis, these attacks are not about to stop. It is clear that this struggle foreshadows others to come, just as it follows closely on those that developed in Greece and Spain against drastic austerity measures there.

However, despite the massive response in France, the government did not give way. Instead, it was uncompromising, repeatedly affirming despite relentless pressure from the streets its firm intention to carry out this attack on pensions, quite cynically repeating the claim that this measure was “necessary” in the name of “solidarity” between the generations.

Why was this measure, which strikes at the heart of all our living and working conditions, passed at all? The whole population fully and strongly expressed its indignation and opposition to it. Why did this massive mobilisation fail to get the government to back down? It’s because the government was assured of the control of the situation by the unions, who have always accepted, along with the left parties, the principle of the “necessary reform” of pensions! We can compare this with the movement in 2006 against the CPE. This movement, which the media initially treated with the utmost contempt as a short-lived “student revolt”, eventually ended with the government forced to retreat faced with no other recourse than withdrawing the CPE.

Where is the difference? Primarily that the students had organised general assemblies (GAs) open to all without distinction of category or sector, public or private, employed or unemployed, casual workers, etc. This burst of confidence in the abilities of the working class and its power, and the profound solidarity inside the struggle, created a dynamic of extension in the movement giving it a massive scale involving all generations. Furthermore, while on the one hand wide-ranging debates and discussions took place in the general assemblies, not confined to the problems of students alone, on the other hand we saw a growing presence of workers on demonstrations alongside the college and high school students.

But it’s also because in their determination and spirit of openness, while leading sections of the working class towards open struggle, the students did not let themselves be intimidated by the manoeuvres of the unions.

Instead, while the latter, especially the CGT, tried to be at the head of the demonstrations to take control, the college and high-school students got in front of the union banners on several occasions to make clear that they did not want to be lost in the background of the movement they had launched. But above all, they affirmed their desire to keep control of the struggle themselves, along with the working class, and not let themselves be conned by the union leaderships.

In fact, one of the greatest concerns of the bourgeoisie was that the forms of organisation adopted by the students in struggle – sovereign general assemblies, electing co-ordinating committees and open to all, where the student unions often had a low profile – did not spread to employed workers if they should come out on strike. It is, moreover, no coincidence that during this movement, Thibault[2] repeatedly stated that workers could learn no lessons from the students on how to organise. So, while the latter have their general assemblies and coordinations, the workers themselves should have confidence in the unions. With no resolution in sight, and with the danger that the unions could lose control, the French government had to climb down because as the last bulwark of the bourgeoisie against the explosion of massive struggles, it was at risk of being demolished.

In the movement against pension reform, the unions, actively supported by the police and the media, sensing what lay ahead, took the measures necessary to be at the centre of things and made the appropriate preparations.

Moreover, the unions’ slogan was not “withdraw the attack on pensions” but “improve the reform”. They called for a fight for renewed negotiations between the unions and the state to make the reforms more “just”, more “humane”. Despite the apparent unity of the Intersyndicale (joint union body), we saw them exploit divisions from the start, clearly intending to reduce the “risks” of things getting out of control; at the beginning of the demonstrations the FO[3] union organised in its own corner, while the Intersyndicale, which organised the day of action on March 23, prepared to “tie up a deal” on reform following negotiations with the government, announcing two more days of action on May 26th and, above all, June 24th, the eve of the summer holidays. We know that a “day of action” at this time of year usually signals the final blow for the working class when it comes to implementing a major attack. However, the final day of action produced an unexpected turnout, with more than twice as many workers, unemployed, casual workers, etc., in the streets. And, while the first two days of action had been very downbeat, as highlighted by the press, anger and unrest were evident on the 24th June when the successful mobilisation boosted the morale of the proletariat. The idea that widespread struggle is possible gained ground. Evidently the unions also felt a change in the wind; they knew that the question of “how to struggle?” was running through people’s heads. So they decided to immediately take charge of the situation and to give a lead; there was no question for them of the workers beginning to think and act for themselves, and getting out of their control. They decided on a new day of action called for 7th September, after the summer holidays. And to be quite sure of holding back the process of reflection, they went as far as sponsoring flights over the beaches in the middle of the summer displaying publicity banners calling people to the demo on the 7th.

For their part, the left parties, which fully supported the pressing need to attack working class pensions, still came and joined in the mobilisation so they wouldn’t be completely discredited.

But another event, a news story, came out during the summer and fuelled workers’ anger: “The Woerth Case” (the politicians currently in office and the richest heiress of French capital, Ms. Bettencourt, boss of L’Oreal group, connived over tax evasion and all kinds of illegal dodges). Eric Woerth is none other than the minister in charge of pension reform. The sense of injustice was total: the working class must tighten its belt while the rich and powerful carry on with “their unseemly affairs”. So under the pressure of this open discontent and growing consciousness of the implications of this reform for our living conditions, the day of action on September 7th was announced, with the unions obliged on this occasion to espouse a belief in united action. Since then, not one union has failed to call for days of action that have brought together about three million workers on demonstrations on several occasions. Pension reform has become symbolic of the sharp deterioration in living standards.

But this unity of the “Intersyndicale” was a trap for the working class. It was intended to give the impression that the unions were committed to organising a broad offensive against the reform and were providing the means for this with repeated days of action in which they could see and hear their leaders ad-nauseum, arm in arm, churning out speeches on “sustaining” the movement and other lies. What frightened the unions most of all was the workers breaking from the union straitjacket and organising themselves. That is what Thibault, secretary general of the CGT, was trying to say when he “sent the government a message” in an interview with Le Monde on 10th September: “We can launch a blockade, with the possibility of a massive social crisis. It is possible. But it’s not us who are taking a risk”, and hegave the following example to better underline the high stakes facing the unions: “We’ve even found a small non-union firm where 40 out of 44 employees came out on strike. It’s a pointer. The more intransigent the government is, the more support for rolling strikes is going to grow.

Clearly, when the unions aren’t there, the workers organise themselves and not only decide what they want to do but risk doing it massively. So to address this concern the big unions, particularly the CGT and SUD[4], have applied themselves with exemplary zeal: occupying the social stage and the media while with the same determination preventing any real expression of workers’ solidarity. In short, on the one hand a lot of hype, and on the other, action aimed at sterilising the movement with false choices, to create division, confusion, and better lead it to defeat.

Blockading the oil refineries is one of the most obvious examples of this. While the workers in this sector, whose fighting spirit was already very strong, were increasingly keen on showing their solidarity with the whole working class against the pension reform – workers moreover facing particularly drastic reductions in their own ranks ­- the CGT set about transforming this spirit of solidarity with a pre-emptive strike. Hence, the blockade of the refineries was never decided in real general assemblies where the workers could really express their views, but by union leaders, experts in manoeuvring who by stifling discussion adopted a sterilising action. Despite the strict confinement imposed by the unions, however, some workers in this sector did try to make contacts and links with workers in other sectors. But, being generally taken in by a strategy of “laying siege”, most of the refinery workers found themselves trapped by the union logic inside the factory, a real poison for broadening the struggle. Indeed, although the objective of the refinery workers was to strengthen the movement, to be a “strong arm” to make the government retreat, as it unfolded under union leadership the blockading of the depots was above all revealed to be a weapon of the bourgeoisie and its unions against the workers. Not only to isolate the refinery workers but also to make their strike unpopular, creating panic and raising the threat of widespread fuel shortages, the press generously spread its venom against these “hostage-takers, preventing people from going to work or going on holiday.” But the workers in this sector were also cut off physically; even though they wanted to offer their solidarity in the struggle, to create a balance of power to get the reforms withdrawn; this particular blockade has in fact been turned against them and the objective they originally set themselves.

There were many similar union actions, in certain sectors like transport, and preferably in areas with few workers, because at all costs the unions had to minimise the risk of extension and active solidarity. They had to pretend, to their audience, that they were orchestrating the most radical struggles and calling for union unity in the demonstrations, all the while sabotaging the situation.

Everywhere one could see the unions uniting in an “Intersyndicale” to better promote the semblance of unity, creating the appearance of general assemblies, without any real debate, confining topics to more corporatist issues, pretending in public to be fighting “for everyone” and “everyone together”... but with each sector organised in its own corner behind its small union boss, doing everything to prevent the creation of mass delegations that would seek solidarity with enterprises in the nearby area.

And the unions have not been alone in obstructing the possibility of such a mobilisation, because Sarkozy’s police, known for their alleged stupidity and anti-leftism, have provided the unions with indispensable support on several occasions through their provocations. Example: the events in Place Bellecour in Lyon, where the presence of a few “hooligans” (probably manipulated by the cops) was used as a pretext for a violent police crackdown against hundreds of young students, most of whom had only come to discuss with the workers at the end of a demonstration.

A movement full of potential

 However, there have been no reports in the media of the many inter-professional committees or general assemblies (“AG interpros”) formed during this period; committees and assemblies whose stated aim was and is to organise outside the unions and to develop discussions completely open to all workers. These assemblies are the place where the working class can not only recognise itself, but above all where it can get massively involved.

This is what scares the bourgeoisie the most: that contacts are forming and growing extensively inside the working class, between young and old, between those in work, and those out of work.

We must draw the lessons from the failure of this movement.

The first observation is that it was the union apparatus that made the attack on the proletariat possible and that the failure of the movement is not at all something that was inevitable. The truth is that the unions did their dirty work and all the sociologists and other specialists, as well as the government and Sarkozy in person, saluted their “sense of responsibility”. Yes, without doubt, the bourgeoisie is fortunate to have “responsible” unions capable of breaking up a movement of this scale while being able at the same time to make everyone believe that they did everything possible to assist its development. Again it’s the same union apparatus that has succeeded in stifling and marginalising real expressions of autonomous struggle of the working class and of all workers.

However, this failure still bears much fruit because all the efforts made by all the bourgeoisie’s forces have not succeeded in inflicting a crushing defeat, as was the case in 2003 with the fight against the reform of public sector pensions when the country’s education sector workers had to make a bitter retreat after several weeks on strike.

Hence, this movement has led to the appearance in several places of a growth of minorities expressing a clear understanding of the real needs of the struggle for the whole proletariat: the need to take the struggle into its own hands to extend and strengthen it, showing that a profound reflection is taking place, that the development of the struggle is only just beginning, and demonstrating a willingness to learn from what has happened and to stay mobilised for the future.

As one of the leaflets of the “AG interpro” of the Gare de l’Est in Paris dated 6 November said: “We should have supported the sectors on strike at the start, not restricting ourselves to the single demand on pensions when redundancies, job cuts, the destruction of public services and low wages were being fought. This could have helped to bring other workers into struggle and extended and unified the strike movement. Only a mass strike which is organised locally and co-ordinated nationally through strike committees, inter-professional general assemblies, struggle committees, where we decide our demands and actions ourselves and we are in control, can have a chance of winning.”

The power of workers lies not only in shutting down an oil depot or a factory, here or there. The power of workers lies in uniting at their workplaces, across occupations, plants, companies and categories and taking decisions together”, because“the attacks are just beginning. We have lost a battle, we have not lost the war. The bourgeoisie has declared class war on us and we still have the means of fighting it” (leaflet entitled “Nobody can struggle, take decisions and succeed on our behalf”, signed by the full-time and temporary workers of the “AG interpro” of the Gare de l’Est and Ile-de-France, cited above). We must defend ourselves by extending and developing our struggles massively and thus take control into our own hands.

This was made particularly clear with:

the real “AG interpros” that emerged in the struggle, albeit as small minorities and were determined to remain mobilised in preparing future combats;

the holding or attempted holding of street assemblies or people’s assemblies at the end of demonstrations, as happened particularly in Toulouse.

This willingness to take control of the struggle by some minorities shows that the class as a whole is beginning to question the unions’ strategy, without yet daring to draw all the consequences from its doubts and questionings. In all the GAs (whether union ones or not), most debates in their various forms have centred around essential questions about “How to struggle?”, “How to help other workers?”, “How to express solidarity?”, “Which other inter-professional GAs can we meet up with?”, “How do we combat isolation and reach out to as many workers as possible to discuss how to struggle together?” ... And in fact, a few dozen workers from all sectors, the unemployed, temporary workers and pensioners have regularly turned up each day in front of the gates of the 12 paralysed refineries, to “make up the numbers” facing the CRS riot police, to bring packed lunches for the strikers, to provide moral support.

This spirit of solidarity is an important element, revealing once again the profound nature of the working class.

Having confidence in our own forces” must be the watchword for the future.

This struggle has the appearance of a defeat; the government did not back down. But in fact it constitutes a new step forward for our class. The minorities that emerged and tried to regroup, to discuss in the “AG interpros” or the people’s street assemblies, the minorities who have tried to take control of their struggles, totally distrusting the unions, reveal the questioning that is taking place in the heads of all the workers. This reflection will continue to develop and will eventually bear fruit. It is not a case of standing by, with arms folded, waiting for the ripe fruit to fall from the tree. All those who are conscious that the only thing the future holds is growing pauperisation and the need to fight the vile attacks of capital must help prepare the future struggles. We must continue to debate, to discuss, to draw the lessons of this movement and to spread them as widely as possible. Those who have begun to build relationships of trust and fraternity in this movement, on the marches and in the GAs, must try and continue their participation (in discussion circles, struggle committees, people’s assemblies or “public platforms”) because there are still questions that need answers, such as:

What role does the “economic blockade” have in the class struggle?

What is the difference between the violence of the state and that of struggling workers?

How do we respond to repression?

How do we take control of our struggles? How do we organise them?

What is the difference between a union GA and a sovereign GA? etc.

This movement is already rich in lessons for the world proletariat. In a different way, the student mobilisations that took place in Great Britain also provide evidence of the promise of the struggles that lie ahead.

Great Britain: the younger generation returns to the struggle

On Saturday October 23rd,following the announcement of the government austerity plan to drastically cut public spending, there were many demonstrations throughout the country called by various unions. The number of people that turned out (it was quite varied, with up to 15,000 in Belfast and 25,000 in Edinburgh) revealed the depth of anger. Another expression of widespread discontent was the student rebellion against university tuition fees being increased by 300%.

Young people are already left heavily in debt with astronomical sums to pay off (as much as £80,000!) after they graduate. Not surprisingly, these new increases provoked a whole series of demonstrations from the north of the country to the south (5 mobilisations in less than a month: 10th, 24th and 30th November and 4th and 9th December). This increase has all the same been passed into law by the House of Commons on December 8th.

The centres of struggle have been widespread: in further education, in high schools and colleges, the occupations of a long list of universities, numerous meetings on campus or in the street to discuss the way forward ... students received support and solidarity from many teachers, who closed their eyes to the absence of the protesters from their classes (attendance at classes is strictly monitored) or went along to discuss with their students. The strikes, demonstrations and occupations were anything but the tame events that unions and the left-wing “officials” usually try to organise. This spiralling spirit of resistance worried the government. A clear sign of its concern was the level of police repression at the demonstrations. Most gatherings ended in violent clashes with armed police adopting a strategy of “kettling” (confining demonstrators inside police cordons), backed up with physical attacks on demonstrators, which resulted in many injured and numerous arrests, mostly in London. Meanwhile occupations took place in fifteen universities with support from teachers. On November 10th, students stormed the headquarters of the Conservative Party and on December 8th, they tried to enter the Treasury building and the High Court, and demonstrators attacked the Rolls-Royce carrying Prince Charles and his wife Camilla. The students and their supporters attended the demonstrations in high spirits, with their own banners and slogans, with some of them participating in a protest movement for the first time. Spontaneous walkouts, the taking of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank, the defiance or creative avoidance of police lines, the invasion of town halls and other public spaces are just some of the expressions of this openly rebellious attitude. The students were sickened and outraged by the attitude of Aaron Porter, president of the NUS (national union of students) who condemned the occupation of the Conservative Party headquarters, attributing it to the violence of a small minority. On 24th November in London, thousands of demonstrators were “kettled” by the police within minutes of setting off from Trafalgar Square, and despite some attempts to break through police lines, the forces of order detained thousands of them for hours in the cold. At one point, the mounted police rode directly at the crowd. In Manchester, at Lewisham Town Hall in south London, and elsewhere, we have seen similar scenes of brute force. The newspapers are playing their usual role as well, printing photographs of alleged “wreckers” after Millbank, running scare stories about revolutionary groups targeting the nation’s youth with their evil propaganda. All this shows the real nature of the “democracy” we live under.

The student revolt in the UK is the best answer to the idea that the working class in the UK remains passive faced with a torrent of attacks by the government on every aspect of our living standards: jobs, wages, health, unemployment, disability benefits as well as education.

A whole new generation of the exploited class does not accept the logic of sacrifice and austerity that the bourgeoisie and its unions are imposing. It’s only by taking control of its struggles, developing its solidarity and international unity that the working class, especially in the most industrialised, “democratic” countries, will be able to offer society a real future. It’s only by refusing to shoulder the burden of a bankrupt capitalism all over the world that the exploited class can put an end to the misery and terror of the exploiting class by overthrowing capitalism and building a new society based on satisfying the needs of the whole of humanity and not on profit and exploitation.

W 14/01/11


[1]. Read the article in International Review n° 125,Theses on the Spring 2006 student movement in France".

[2]. General Secretary of the CGT, the main body of affiliated trade unions in France and associated with the French Communist Party.

[3]. FO: "Force ouvrière". This union came out of a split with the CGT in 1947 at the start of the Cold War and was supported and financed by the American unions of the AFL-CIO. Up until the 1990s, this organisation was known for its "moderation" but thereafter it adopted a more "radical" stance by trying to "outflank" the CGT on the left.

[4]. SUD: "Solidaires Unitaires Démocratiques". Small union on the far left of the spectrum of the forces that supervise the working class, and largely influenced by leftist groups.


Recent and ongoing: 

Capitalism has no way out of its crisis

The weakest of the super-indebted national economies must be rescued before they go bankrupt and ruin their creditors; austerity plans designed to contain the debt only aggravate the risk of recession and a cascade of bankruptcies; attempts at recovery by printing money merely re-launch inflation. There is an impasse at the economic level and the bourgeoisie is incapable of proposing policies with the slightest coherence.

The “rescue” of European economies

At the very moment that Ireland negotiated its rescue plan, the International Monetary Fund admitted that Greece would not be able to fulfill the plan that they and the European Union devised in April 2010. Greece’s debt would have to be restructured, even if they didn’t use this word. According to D. Strauss Khan, the boss of the IMF, Greece must be allowed to repay its debt not in 2015 but in 2024. That is, on the 12th of Never, given the course of the present crisis in Europe. Here is a perfect symbol of the fragility of some if not most European countries undermined by debt.

Of course this concession to Greece must be accompanied by supplementary measures of austerity. After the austerity plan of April 2010 - which was financed by the non-payment of pensions for two months, the lowering of indemnities in the public sector, and price rises resulting from an increase in taxes on electricity, petrol, alcohol, tobacco, etc - there are also plans to cut public employment. 

A comparable scenario unfolded in Ireland where the workers were presented with a fourth austerity plan. In 2009 public sector wages were lowered between 5 and 15%, welfare payments were suppressed and retired workers were not replaced. The new austerity plan negotiated with the rescue plan included the lowering of the minimum wage by 11.5%, the lowering of welfare payments, the loss of 24,750 state jobs and the increase in sales tax from 21 to 23%. And, as in Greece, it is clear that a country of 4.5million people, whose GNP in 2009 was 164 billion euros, will not be able to pay back a loan of 85 billion euros. For these two countries, these violent austerity plans presage future measures that will force the working class and the major part of the population into unbearable poverty.

The incapacity of new countries (Portugal, Spain, etc) to pay their debts is shown in their attempt to avoid the consequences by adopting draconian austerity measures and preparing for worse, as in Greece and Ireland.

What are the austerity plans trying to save?

A reasonable question since the answer is not obvious. One thing is certain: their aim is not to alleviate the poverty of the millions who are the first to suffer the consequences. A clue lies in the anxiety of the political and financial authorities about the risk that more countries would in turn default on their public debt. More than a risk since nobody can see how this scenario will not come to pass.

At the origin of the bankruptcy of the Greek state is a considerable budget deficit due to an exorbitant mass of public spending (armaments in particular) that the fiscal resources of the country, weakened by the aggravation of the crisis in 2008, cannot finance. As for the Irish state, its banking system had accumulated a debt of 1,432 billion euros (on a GDP of 164 billion euros) which the worsening of the crisis had made impossible to reimburse. As a consequence, the banking system had to be largely nationalised and the debt was transferred to the state. Having paid a relatively small amount of these debts of the banking system the Irish state found itself in 2010 with a public deficit corresponding to 32% of GDP! Beyond the fantastic character of such figures, we can see that whatever the different histories of these two national economies, the result is the same. In both cases, faced with an insane level of indebtedness of the state or of private institutions, it is the state which must assume the integrity of the national capital by showing its capacity to reimburse the debt and pay the interest on it.

The inability of the Greek and Irish economies to repay their debt contains a danger that extends way beyond the borders of these two countries. And it is this aspect which explains the panic at the top levels of the world bourgeoisie. In the same way that the Irish banks were supported by credit from a series of world states, the banks of the major developed countries held the colossal debts of the Greek and Irish states. There are different opinions concerning the level of the claims of the major world banks on the Irish state. Let’s take the “average”: “According to the economic daily Les Echos de Lundi, French banks have a 21.1 billion euro exposure to Ireland, behind the German banks (46 billion), British (42.3 billion) and American (24.6billion).[1] And concerning the exposure of the banks by the situation in Greece: “The French institutions are the most exposed with 55 billion euros in assets. The Swiss banks have invested 46 billion, the Germans 31 billion”.[2] The non-bailout of Greece and Ireland would have put the creditor banks in a very difficult situation, and thus the states on which they depend. It would have been even more the case for countries in a critical financial situation (like Spain and Portugal) that are also exposed in Greece and Ireland and for whom such a situation would have proved fatal.

That’s not all. The non-bailout of Greece and Ireland would have signified that the financial authorities of the EU and the IMF would not guarantee the finances of countries in difficulty. This would have led to a stampede of creditors away from these countries and the guaranteed bankruptcy of the weakest of them, the collapse of the euro and a financial storm that would make the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 look like a mild sea breeze. In other words, the financial authorities of the EU and the IMF came to the rescue of Greece and Ireland not to save these two states, still less the populations of these two countries, but to avoid the meltdown of the world financial system.

In reality, it is not only Greece, Ireland and a few other countries in the South of Europe whose financial situation has deteriorated. “.. the following figures show the level of total debt as a percentage of GDP [January 2010]: 470% for the UK and Japan, gold medals for total indebtedness; 360% for Spain; 320% for France, Italy and Switzerland; 300% for the US and 280% for Germany.”[3] In fact, all countries, whether inside or outside the Euro zone, are indebted beyond their ability to repay. Nevertheless the Euro zone countries have the supplementary difficulty that its states are unable to create the monetary means to “finance” their deficits. This is the exclusive preserve of the European Central Bank. Other countries like the UK and the US, equally indebted, do not have this problem since they have the authority to create their own money.


Public and private debt in 2009 excluding financial institutions (% of the GDP)[4]

The levels of indebtedness of all these states show that their commitments exceed their ability to pay to an absurd degree. Calculations have been made which show that Greece needs a budget surplus of at least 16 or 17% to stabilise its public debt. In fact these are all countries that are indebted to a point where their national production doesn’t permit the repayment of their debt. In other words the states and private institutions hold debt that can never be honoured.[5] The table above, which shows the debt of each European country (outside of financial institutions, contrary to the figures mentioned above) gives a good idea of the immensity of the debts contracted as well as the fragility of the most indebted countries.

Given that the rescue plans have no chance of success, what else is their significance?

Capitalism can survive only thanks to plans of permanent economic support

The Greek rescue plan cost 110 billion euros and Ireland’s 85 billion. These massive financial contributions from the IMF, the Euro zone and the UK (which gave 8.5billion euros when Cameron’s government was making its own austerity plan to reduce public expenses by 25% in 2015[6]) are only money issued against the wealth of the different states. In other words the money extended to the rescue plan is not based on newly created wealth but is nothing but the result of printing money, Monopoly money.

Such support to the financial sector, which finances the real economy, is in fact a support to real economic activity. Thus on the one hand draconian austerity plans are put in place, announcing still more draconian austerity plans, and on the other, threatened by the collapse of the financial system and the blockage of the world economy, plans of support are adopted whose content is very similar to what are known as “recovery plans”.

In fact the US is going furthest in this direction: Quantitative Easing nº2, creating 900 billion dollars,[7] has no other meaning than the attempt to save the American financial system whose ledgers are full of bad debts, and to support the anaemic economic growth of the US, which cannot overcome its sizeable budget deficit.

Having the advantage that the dollar is the money of world exchange the US does not suffer the same constraints as Greece, Ireland and other European countries. That’s why, as many think, a Quantitative Easing nº3 cannot be ruled out.

Thus the support of economic activity by budgetary measures is much stronger in the US than in the European countries. But that does not stop the US from trying to drastically slash its budget deficit, as illustrated by Obama’s proposal to block the wages of federal employees. In fact one finds in every country in the world such contradictions revealed in the policies adopted.

The bourgeoisie has exceeded the limits of indebtedness that capitalism can sustain

We thus have plans of austerity and plans of recovery at the same time! What is the reason for such contradictions?

As Marx showed, capitalism suffers genetically from a lack of outlets because the exploitation of labour power necessarily leads to the creation of a value greater than the outlay in wages, because the working class consumes much less than it produces. Up until the end of the 19th century, the bourgeoisie had to offset this problem by the colonisation of non-capitalist areas where it forced the population, with various means, to buy the merchandise produced by its capital. The crises and wars of the 20th century illustrate that this way of answering overproduction, inherent to capitalist exploitation, was reaching its limits. In other words, non-capitalist areas of the planet were no longer sufficient for the bourgeoisie to realise the surplus product that was needed for enlarged accumulation. The deregulation of the economy at the end of the 1960s, manifested in monetary crises and recessions, signified the quasi-absence of the extra capitalist markets as a means of absorbing the surplus capitalist production. The only solution henceforth has been the creation of an artificial market inflated by debt. It has allowed the bourgeoisie to sell to states, households and businesses without the latter having the real means to buy.

We have often shown that capitalism has used debt as a palliative to the crisis of overproduction that has ensnared it since the end of the 1960s. But we should not confuse debt with magic. Actually debt must be progressively repaid and the interest paid systematically, otherwise the creditor will not only stop lending but risk bankruptcy himself.

Now the situation of a growing number of European countries shows that they can no long pay the part of the debt demanded by their creditors. In other words these countries must reduce their debt, in particular by cutting expenses, when 40 years of crisis have shown that the increase of the latter was an absolutely necessary condition to avoid a world recession. All states, to a greater or lesser degree are faced with the same insoluble contradiction.

The financial storms shaking Europe at the moment are thus the product of the fundamental contradictions of capitalism and illustrate the absolute impasse of this mode of production.

We will now deal with other characteristics of the present situation.

Developing inflation

At the very moment when most countries have austerity plans that reduce internal demand, including for basic necessities, the price of agricultural raw materials has sharply increased. More than 100% for cotton in a year;[8] more than 20% for wheat and maize between July 2009 and July 2010[9] and 16% for rice between April-June 2010 and the end of October 2010.[10] Metals and oil went in a similar direction. Of course, climatic factors have a role in the evolution of the price of food products, but the increase is so general that other causes must be at play. All countries are preoccupied by the level of inflation that is increasing in their economies. Some examples from the “emerging countries”:

-        officially inflation in China reached an annual rate of 5.1% in November 2010 (in fact every specialist agrees that the real figures for inflation in this country is between 8 and 10%);

-        in India inflation reached 8.6% in October;

-        in Russia it was 8.5% in 2010.[11]

The development of inflation is not an exotic phenomenon reserved for the emerging countries. The developed countries are more and more concerned: a 3.3% rate in November in the UK was seen as worrying by the government; 1.9% in virtuous Germany caused disquiet because it occurs alongside rapid growth.

What then, is the cause of this return of inflation?

Inflation is not always the result of vendors raising their prices because demand exceeds supply and therefore carries no risk of losing sales. Another factor entirely can cause this phenomenon. The increase in the money supply over the past three decades for example. The printing of money, that is the issuing of new money when the wealth of the national economy does not increase in the same proportion, leads inevitably to a depreciation of the money in circulation and thus to an increase in prices. Now, all the official statistics show that since 2008 there has been a strong increase in the money supply in the great economic zones of the planet.

This increase encourages the development of speculation with disastrous consequences for the working class. Given that demand is too weak as a result of the stagnation or lowering of wages, businesses cannot raise their market prices without losing sales. These same businesses or investors turn away from productive activity which is not profitable enough or too risky, and use the money created by the central banks for speculation. Concretely that means buying financial products, raw materials or currencies with the hope that that they can be resold with a substantial profit. Consumer products become tradable assets. The problem is that a good part of these products, in particular agricultural products, are also commodities consumed by vast numbers of workers, peasants, unemployed, etc. Consequently, as well as a lowering of income, a great part of the world population is hit by the rise in the price of rice, bread, clothes, etc.

Thus the crisis, which obliges the bourgeoisie to save its banks by means of the creation of money, leads the workers to suffer two attacks:

-        the lowering of their wages;

-        the increase in the price of basic commodities.

Prices of basic necessities have been rising since the beginning of the century for these reasons. From the same causes today, the same effects. In 2007 – 2008 (just before the financial crisis) great masses of the world population were forced into hunger riots. The consequences of the present price explosion have immediately led to the revolts in Tunisia, Egypt and Algeria.

The level of inflation won’t stop rising. According to Cercle Finance from 7th December, the rate of 10 year T bonds[12] has increased from 2.94% to 3.17% and the rate of 30 year T bonds has increased from 4.25% to 4.425%. That clearly shows that the capitalists anticipate a loss of the value of the money they invest and thus demand a higher rate of return on it.

The tensions between national capitals

During the Depression of the 1930s, protectionism and trade war developed to such an extent that one could speak of a “regionalisation” of exchange. Each of the great industrialised countries reserved a zone for its domination which allowed it to find a minimum of outlets. Contrary to the pious intentions published by the recent G20 in Seoul, according to which the different participants declared a voluntary ban on protectionism, reality is quite different. Protectionist tendencies are clearly at work today behind the euphemism of “economic patriotism”. It would be too tedious to list all the protectionist measures adopted by different countries. Let us simply mention that the US in September 2010 was taking 245 anti-dumping measures; that Mexico from March 2009 had taken 89 measures of commercial retaliation against the US and that China recently decided to drastically limit the export of its “rare earths” needed for a lot of high technology products.

But, in the present period, it’s currency war that will be the major manifestation of trade war. We have already seen that Quantitative Easing Nº2 was a necessity for American capital. At the same time, to the extent that the creation of money can only lead to the lowering of its value, and thus the price of Made in USA products on the world market (relative to the products of other countries) QE is a particularly aggressive protectionist measure. The under-valuation of the Chinese yuan has similar objectives.

However, despite the trade war, the different countries have agreed to prevent Greece and Ireland from defaulting on their debt. The bourgeoisie is obliged to take very contradictory measures, dictated by the total impasse of its system.

What solutions can the bourgeoisie propose?

Why, in the catastrophic situation of the world economy do we find articles like those of the Tribune or Le Monde entitled “Why growth will come”[13] or “The US wants to believe in the economic recovery”?[14] Such headlines, which are only propaganda, are trying to send us to sleep, and above all make us think that the bourgeoisie’s economic and political authorities still have a certain mastery of the situation. In fact the bourgeoisie only has the choice between two policies, rather like the choice between the plague and cholera:

-        either it proceeds by creating money as it has done with Greece and Ireland, since all the funds of the EU and the IMF come from the printing of money by its various member countries. But then it heads towards a devaluation of currencies and an inflationist tendency that can only get worse;

-        or it tries a particularly draconian austerity in order to stabilise the debt. This is the German solution for the Euro zone, since the major part of the cost of support for countries in difficulty is borne by German capital. The end result of such a policy can only be the rapid fall into depression, as indicated by the fall of production that we have seen in 2010 in Greece, Ireland and in Spain following the adoption of austerity plans.

Recently published texts by a number of economists propose their solutions to the present impasse. But they are either pure propaganda to make us think that capitalism, despite everything, has a future, or an exercise in self-hypnosis. To take one example, according to Professor M Aglietta[15] the austerity plans adopted in Europe are going to cost 1% of growth in European Union which will be about 1% in 2011. His alternative solution reveals that the greatest economists have nothing realistic to offer: he was not afraid to say that a new “regulation” based on the “green economy” would be the solution. He only “forgot” one thing: such a “regulation” implies considerable expense and thus an even more gigantic creation of money than at present, when the bourgeoisie is particularly worried about the resumption of inflation.

The only true solution to the capitalist impasse will emerge from the more and more numerous, massive and conscious struggles of the working class against the economic attacks of the bourgeoisie. It will lead naturally to the overthrow of this system whose principle contradiction is that of the production for profit and accumulation and not the satisfaction of human needs.

Vitaz 2/1/11


[4]. Key to abbreviations: Etat = country; Societies non financieres = non-financial companies; Menages = Households

[5]. J. Sapir “Can the Euro survive the crisis?” Marianne, 31 December 2010.

[6]. But it is revealing that Cameron is beginning to fear the depressive effect of the plan on the British economy.

[7]. QE2 had been fixed at $600billion but the FED was obliged to renew the purchase of matured debt at $35billion a month.

[8]. (the figures on this site date from the beginning of November. Today they have been largely surpassed).

[9]. C. Chevré, MoneyWeek, 17 November 2010

[10]. Observatoire du riz de Madagascar;

[12]. American Treasury Bonds

[13]. La Tribune 17 December 2010

[14]. Le Monde 30th December 2010

[15]. In the broadcast “L’éspirit public” on “France Culture” radio, 26 December 2010


Recent and ongoing: 

The economic crisis in Britain

The text that follows is, apart from a few minor changes, the economic part of the report on the situation in Britain for the 19th Congress of the ICC’s section in Britain. We thought it would be useful to publish it to the outside since it provides a number of factors and analyses which enable us to grasp how the world economic crisis is expressing itself in the world’s oldest capitalist power. 

The international context

In 2010 the bourgeoisie announced the end of the recession and predicted that the world economy would grow over the next two years led by the emerging economies. However, there are serious uncertainties about the global situation, reflected in differing projections of growth. The IMF in its World Economic Outlook Update of July 2010 predicted global growth of 4.5% this year and 4.25% next. The World Bank in its Global Economic Prospects report for summer 2010 envisaged growth of 3.3% this year and next and 3.5% in 2012 if things go well but of 3.1% this year, 2.9% next and 3.2% in 2012 if things do not go well. The concern is particularly centred on Europe where the World Bank’s higher estimate is dependent on “Assuming that measures in place prevent today’s market nervousness from slowing the normalization of bank-lending, and that a default or restructuring of European sovereign debt is avoided”.[1] The lower growth rate if this is not achieved will affect Europe particularly, with predicted growth rates of 2.1, 1.9 and 2.2 percent between 2010 and 2012.

Source: IMF World Economic Outlook Update, July 2010

The situation remains fragile with concern about high levels of debt and low levels of bank lending and the possibility of further financial shocks, such as that in May this year that saw global stock markets lose between 8 and 17% of their value. The scale of the bailout is itself one of the causes of concern: “the size of the EU/IMF rescue package (close to $1 trillion); the magnitude of the initial market reaction to the possibility of a Greek default and eventual contagion; and continued volatility, are indications of the fragility of the financial situation…a further episode of market uncertainty could entail serious consequences for growth in both high-income and developing countries.”[2] The prescription of the IMF, as one might expect, is to reduce state spending, with the inevitable result that the working class will face austerity: “high-income countries will need to cut government spending (or raise revenues) by 8.8 percent of GDP for a 20 year period in order to bring debt levels down to 60 percent of GDP by 2030.

For all their appearance of objectivity and sober analysis, these recent reports by the IMF and World Bank suggest there is a depth of uncertainty and fear within the ruling class about its ability to overcome the crisis. The possibility of other countries following Ireland back into recession remains real. 

The evolution of the economic situation in Britain

This section draws on official data to give an overview of the course of the recession and the response from the government. However, it is important to begin by recalling that the crisis began within the financial sector, stemming from the crisis in the US housing market and encompassing the major banks and financial bodies around the globe that had become involved in lending where there was a real risk of the loans not being paid back. This was at its most extreme in the sub-prime mortgage market in the US, the contagion from which spread through the financial system because of the trading that developed based on the financial instruments derived from these loans. However, other countries, notably Britain and Ireland, had contrived to produce their own housing bubbles that contributed, together with a massive rise in unsecured personal borrowing, to create a level of debt that in Britain ultimately exceeded the country’s annual GDP. The crisis that developed flowed across into the ‘real’ economy leading to recession. The whole situation evoked a very forceful response from the British ruling class that poured unprecedented sums of money into the financial system and cut interest rates to a historic low.

Official figures show that Britain went into recession in the second quarter of 2008 and came out in the fourth quarter of 2009 with a peak to trough fall of 6.4% of GDP.[3] This figure, which was recently revised downwards, makes this recession the worst since the Second World War (the recessions of the early 1990s and 1980s saw falls of 2.5% and 5.9% respectively). Growth in the second quarter of 2010 was 1.2%, increasing significantly from the 0.4% of the fourth quarter 2009 and 0.3% of the first quarter 2010. However, it is still 4.7% below the pre-recession level as can be seen in the graph above.

The manufacturing sector has been the most affected by the recession, registering a peak to trough decline of 13.8% between the fourth quarter in 2007 and the third quarter of 2009. Since then manufacturing has expanded by 1.1% in the last quarter of 2009 and by 1.4% and 1.6% in the two quarters since.

The construction industry showed a sharp rebound in growth of 6.6% in the second quarter of 2010, contributing 0.4% to the overall growth rate for that quarter. However, this follows very substantial declines in both house building (down 37.2% between 2007 and 2009) and commercial and industrial work (down 33.9% between 2008 and 2009).

The service sector recorded a peak to trough fall of 4.6% with business and financial services falling by 7.6% “much stronger than in earlier downturns, making the largest single contribution to the fall”.[4] In the last quarter of that year it returned to growth of 0.5% but in the first quarter of 2010 this fell to 0.3%. Although the decline in this sector was less than in others, its dominant position in the economy meant that it was the largest contributor to the overall decline in GDP during this recession. The decline in the service sector was also greater in this recession than those of the early 1980s and early 1990s where the falls were 2.4% and 1% respectively. More recently, the business services and finance sector has shown stronger growth and contributed 0.4 percentage points to the overall GDP figure.

As might be expected both exports and imports declined during the recession. This was most marked in the trade in goods (although the balance actually improved slightly): “In 2009 the deficit fell by £11.2 billion to £81.9 billion. There was a record fall in exports of 9.7 per cent – from a record £252.1 billion to £227.5 billion. However, this was accompanied by a fall in imports of 10.4 per cent, the largest year-on-year fall since 1952, which had a much larger impact since total imports are significantly larger than total exports. Imports fell from a record £345.2 billion in 2008 to £309.4 billion in 2009. These large falls in both exports and imports were a result of a general contraction of global trade associated with the worldwide financial crisis which began late in 2008.”[5] The decline in services was smaller, with imports falling by 5.4% and exports by 6.9% with the balance, which remained positive, going from £55.4bn in 2008 to £49.9bn in 2009. The total trade in services in 2009 was £159.1bn in exports and £109.2bn in imports, which is significantly less than that of the trade in goods.

Between 2008/9 and 2009/10 the current account deficit doubled from 3.5% of GDP to 7.08%. The Public Sector Net Borrowing Requirement, which includes borrowing for capital spending, went from 2.35% of GDP in 2007/8, to 6.04% in 2008/9 and 10.25% in 2009/10. In 2008 it was £61.3bn and in 2009 £140.5bn. Total government net debt was calculated to be £926.9bn in July this year or 56.1% of GDP, compared to £865.5bn in 2009 and £634.4bn in 2007. In May 2009 Standard and Poor raised the possibility of downgrading Britain’s debt status from the highest triple A rating, which would have led to significant increases in borrowing costs.

The number of companies going bankrupt increased during the recession, rising from 12,507 in 2007 (which was one of the lower figures for the decade) to 15,535 in 2008 and 19,077 in 2009. The number of acquisitions and mergers rose during the second half of the decade to reach 869 in 2007 before falling over the next two years to 558 and 286 respectively. Figures for the first quarter of 2010 do not suggest any increase is taking place. This suggests that while there has been destruction of the capital associated with the businesses going insolvent this has not yet led to a general process of consolidation as might be expected coming out of a crisis, which itself may indicate that the real crisis remains with us.

During the crisis the pound fell sharply against a number of other currencies, losing over a quarter of its value between 2007 and the start of 2009, prompting the Bank of England to comment “The fall of more than a quarter since mid-2007 is the sharpest over a comparable period since the breakdown of the Bretton Woods agreement in the early 1970s[6] There has been a recovery since but the pound remains about 20% below its 2007 exchange rate.

House prices fell sharply after the bursting of the property bubble and although they began to rise again this year they remained substantially below their peak and in September fell again by 3.6%. The number of sales remains at a historic low.

The stock market suffered sharp falls from mid 2007 and, although it has recovered since then, there is still uncertainty. The concerns about the debts of Greece and other countries prior to the intervention of the EU and IMF led to a significant fall in May this year as the graph below shows.


Source: The Guardian

Inflation rose to nearly 5% in September 2008 before falling to below 2% a year later. It has since risen to over 3% during 2010, above the Bank of England's target of 2%.

Unemployment is estimated to have increased by about 900,000 during the recession, which is considerably less than in previous recessions. In July 2010 the official figures were 7.8% of the workforce totalling some 2.47 million people.

State intervention

The British government intervened robustly to limit the crisis, initiating a range of policies that were taken up by many other countries. Gordon Brown basked in this glory for a few months, famously stating that he had saved the world in a slip of the tongue during a debate in the House of Commons. There were a number of strands to the state’s intervention:

-          cuts in the Bank of England base interest rate. Between December 2007 and March 2009 the rate was progressively cut from 5.5% to 0.5%, bringing it down to the lowest rate on record and below the rate of inflation;

-          intervention to directly support the banks, leading to nationalisation or part nationalisation. This started with Northern Rock in February 2008 and was followed by Bradford and Bingley. In September the government brokered the take-over of HBOS by Lloyds TSB. In October £50bn was made available to the banks for recapitalisation. In November 2009 a further £37bn investment resulted in the de-facto nationalisation of RBS/Nat West and the partial nationalisation of Lloyds TSB/HBOS;

-          quantitative easing, also known as the asset purchase facility. In March 2009 plans to inject £75bn over three months were announced. This was gradually increased and at present the total stands at £200bn. The Bank of England explains that the purpose of quantitative easing is to put more money into the economy to keep the rate of inflation at its target of 2% and this became necessary when further reductions of the base rate were no longer possible after it had been reduced to 0.5%. This is achieved by the bank purchasing assets (mainly gilts) from private sector institutions and crediting the sellers’ account, effectively creating new money. This sounds simple, but according to the Financial TimesNo one is sure whether or how quantitative easing and other unorthodox monetary policies works[7]

-          intervention to encourage consumption. In January 2009 VAT was cut from 17.5% to 15% and in May 2009 the car scrappage scheme was introduced. The increase in the guarantee on bank deposits to £50,000 in October 2008 can be seen as part of this since its aim was to reassure consumers that their money would not just disappear in the event of a bank collapse.

The result was the containment of the immediate crisis with no further bank collapses. The price was a substantial increase in debt as noted above. Official figures give the cost of government intervention as £99.8bn in 2007, £121.5bn in 2009 and £113.2bn in July this year. These figures do not include the cost of purchasing assets such as the stakes in the banks or the expenditure on quantitative easing (which would add another £250bn or so to the total) on the grounds that these assets will only be held temporally by government before being sold back. Whether this is so remains to be seen, although Lloyds TSB has paid back some of the money it received.

The interventions have also been partly credited for the lower than expected rise in employment during the recession. This will be dealt with in more detail below.

However, the longer-term prospects seem more questionable:

-          interventions to manage inflation and theoretically encourage spending have not brought the headline rate to target, although it is suggested that the underlying trends are lower than the headline rate suggests. However, the cost of food is rising globally so may affect the rate over time, particularly as it affects those who are less well off;

-          the efforts to inject liquidity into the system, by reducing the cost of borrowing and increasing the supply of money, have not produced the increase in lending that was hoped for, leading to repeated calls from politicians for the banks to do more;

-          the impact of the VAT cut and car scrappage scheme contributed to the initial recovery at the end of 2009 but have now ended. There was a slight fall in car sales in the first quarter of 2010 but the car scrappage scheme was still in place then. Overall, there have been reductions in most areas of household consumption, growth in personal debt has begun to reduce and the rate of savings has increased. Given the central role played by debt-funded household consumption in the boom this clearly has implications for any recovery.

The consensus forecasts for GDP growth in 2010 and 2011 in Britain are 1.5% and 2.0% respectively. This is above the 0.9% and 1.7% predicted for the Euro Area but below the 1.9% and 2.5% forecast for the OECD as a whole[8] and below the forecasts for Europe from the IMF quoted at the start of this report.

However, to grasp the real significance of the crisis it is necessary to penetrate below these surface phenomena to examine aspects of the structure and functioning of the British economy.

Historical and structural issues

Changes within the composition of the British economy: from production to services

To understand the situation of British capitalism and the significance of the recession it is necessary to look at the main structural changes within the economy over recent decades. The article published in Bilan in 1934/1935 (n° 13 and 14)[9] noted that in 1851 24% of men were employed in agriculture. By 1931 this had shrunk to 7% and that in the same period the proportion of men employed in industry declined from 51% to 42%. Today this has undoubtedly gone much further. In the 1930s Britain still had an empire, albeit decaying, that it could draw on. This has not been the case since the Second World War. The historical trend has been a shift away from production towards services and within this sector to finances in particular as the two charts below show.

Both of these are taken from the Blue Book for 2010, which sets out the national accounts. It made the following comments about these two charts: “In 2006, the latest base year, just over 75 per cent of total gross value added was from the services sector, compared to 17 per cent from the production sector. Most of the remainder was attributed to the construction sector.[10] In 1985 the service sector made up 58% of GVA. “An analysis of the 11 broad industrial sectors shows that in 2008 the financial intermediation and other business services sector provided the largest contribution to gross value added at current basic prices, at £420 billion out of a total of £1,295.7 billion (32.4 per cent). The distribution and hotels sector contributed 14.2 per cent; the education, health and social work sector accounted for 13.1 per cent; and the manufacturing sector 11.6 per cent.[11] Note that in two years from 2006 to 2008 the contribution of the manufacturing sector shrank by around a third (from 17% to 11.6%).
Some idea of the pace of these developments over the last 30 years is given in the table below entitled “Structural change in UK Services” which attempts to quantify the development within the various sectors that make up the service sector. “Total service output has more than doubled during this period, but in the business services and finance sector output grew almost five-fold.[12] In comparison, the same table for manufacturing shows that the sector grew by just 18.1% during the same period with wide variations between industries.


Source: Economic and Labour Market Review
The service sector as a whole is more profitable than the manufacturing sector as the table below shows. In the first quarter of 2010 the net rate of return in manufacturing was 6.4% and in services it was 14.4%. However, these are the lowest rates of return since 1991 and 1995 respectively.


The rise of the financial sector

The figures published about the profitability of the service sector cited above are for private non-financial companies and one particular feature of the situation in Britain is the significance of the financial sector, so this needs further examination. Five of the top ten banks in Europe in 2004 by capitalisation, including numbers one and two, were based in Britain. Globally, the four largest British banks are in the top seven banks (the US banks Citicorp and UBS are the top two). According to the Director of Financial Stability at the Bank of England: “As a share of whole-economy output, the direct contribution of the UK financial sector rose to 9% in the last quarter of 2008. Financial corporations’ gross operating surplus (GVA less compensation for employees and other taxes on production) increased by £5.0bn to £20bn, also the largest quarterly increase on record.”[13] This reflects the trend in Britain for over a century and a half: “Over the past 160 years, growth in financial intermediation has outstripped whole economy growth by over 2 percentage points per year. Or put differently, growth in financial sector value added has been more than double that of the economy as a whole since 1850”.[14] From accounting for about 1.5% of the economy’s profits between 1948 and 1970 the sector has grown to account for 15%. This is a global phenomenon with pre-tax profits of the top 1,000 world banks reaching £800bn in 2007/8, an increase of 150% from 2000/1. Crucially, the return on capital in the banking sector has far outstripped that in the rest of the economy as the chart below shows.


The weight of the banking sector within the economy can be gauged by comparing its assets to the total GDP for the country. This can be seen in the chart above. By 2006 British banks’ assets were over 500% of national GDP. In the US assets rose from 20% to 100% of GDP over the same period, thus the weight of the banking sector in Britain is proportionately far greater. However, its capital ratio (this is the capital held by the bank in comparison to that lent) did not keep pace, falling from 15-25% at the start of the 20th century to about 5% at the end. This increased sharply over the last decade and just before the crash leverage of the major global banks was about 50 times equity. This underlines that the global economy has been built on a tower of fictitious capital over the last few decades. The crisis of 2007 threatened to topple the whole edifice and this could have been catastrophic for Britain given its reliance on this sector. This is why the British bourgeoisie had to respond as it did.

The nature of the service sector

It is also worth looking at the service sector as a whole more closely. The sector is broken down in various ways in official publications providing greater or lesser detail. Here we will refer to those listed in the table above (“Structural change in UK services”) although it is worth noting that sometimes construction, which is a productive activity, is included within the service sector. The bourgeoisie records the value each industry is supposed to add to the economy but this does not tell us whether they actually produce surplus value or, while performing a necessary function, they do not add value.
Some of these sectors are what Marx described as costs of circulation.[15] Within this he distinguishes between those that relate to the transformation of the commodity from one form to another, that is from the commodity form to the money form or vice versa, and those that are a continuation of the productive process.
Changes in the form of the commodity, although they are a necessary part of the total production process, do not add value and are a cost against the surplus value that is extracted. In the list we are considering this includes retail and wholesale distribution (other than where this comprises transport of commodities – see below), hotels and restaurants (to the extent that they are the point of sale of finished commodities– the preparation of meals may be seen as a productive process producing surplus value), large parts of communications (where these are concerned with purchases of raw materials or the sale of finished products), business services and computers (where these are concerned with things like ordering and stock control and market strategy). The whole marketing and advertising industry, which is not separately identified here, falls under this category since it is concerned with maximising sales.
Marx argues that those activities that are a continuation of the productive process include activities like transport that involve getting the commodity to its point of consumption and others, such as storage, that are concerned with the preservation of the value of the commodity. These activities tend to increase the cost of the commodity without adding to its use value; they are unproductive costs so far as society is concerned but may produce surplus value for the individual capitalist. In our list this category includes transport and air transport and retail and wholesale distribution where these involve the transportation or storage of commodities.
A third area concerns those activities linked to appropriating a share of the total surplus value through interest or rent. Many of the activities within business services and finance, financial intermediation and services, computer activities and auxiliary finance are aspects of the administration of the stock market and banking where fees and commissions are charged as well as interest. Financial bodies also invest money and speculate on their own account. Ownership of dwellings is probably related to lettings and hence the receipt of surplus value in the form of rent.
A fourth area is the activity of the state, which covers most of the last five in our list. Since these are funded from surplus value through taxation of industry none of these produce surplus value, although state orders may produce profits for individual businesses. In International Review n°114 we pointed out that the way the bourgeoisie produces its national accounts tends to overestimate GNP (Gross National Product) because “national accounting partly counts the same thing twice. In practice, the selling price of products in the market incorporates the taxes that are used to pay national expenditure, namely the costs of non-market services (teaching, social security, public sector personnel…). The bourgeois economy calculates the value of these non-market services as being equal to the sum of wages paid to personnel who provide them. Now, in national accounting, this sum is tacked on to the added value produced in the market sector (the only productive sector), even though it is already included in the selling price of market products…[16]
Taking the service sector as a whole, it is clear that it does not actually add the value to the economy that is claimed for it. Some parts reduce the total surplus value produced, others, notably the financial and business services, take a share in the surplus value produced, including that produced in other countries.
What are the reasons for the changes in the structure of the British economy? In the first place, increasing productivity means that a growing mass of commodities is produced by a falling number of workers. This is the reality behind the figures from Bilan quoted above. Secondly, the growing organic composition and the falling rate of profit results in the shift of production to areas with cheaper costs for labour and constant capital.[17] Thirdly, the same factors prompt capital to move into activities where the returns are greater, notably in banking and finances, where Britain’s initial dominance (Bilan referred to Britain as the “world’s banker”) allowed it to extract more surplus value. The deregulation of this sector in the 1980s did not reduce the costs but rather strengthened the dominance of the major banks and financial companies and the reliance of the bourgeoisie on the profits they produce. Fourthly, as the mass of commodities grows the contradiction between the scale of production and the capacity of the market increases, drawing in more resources to effect the transition of capital from its commodity form to its money form. Fifthly, the growing complexity of the economy and the social strains this produces results in the growth of the state, which aims to manage the whole of society in the interests of the national capital. This includes the direct forces of control, but also those parts of the state tasked with producing workers with the right skills, with keeping them reasonably healthy and with managing the various social problems that arise from a society based on exploitation.


Two somewhat contradictory conclusions can be drawn from this part of the report. The first and most important is that the evolution of British capitalism left it exposed to the full force of the crisis when it broke and there was a real danger that the collapse of the financial sector would cripple the economy. The perspective was of a sharp acceleration of the decline of the global strength of British capitalism with all the consequences at the economic, imperialist and social level this would entail. It is no exaggeration to say that the British bourgeoisie looked into the abyss in 2007 and 2008. The response confirmed again the continuing skill and determination of the ruling class as it united to throw all of its forces into combating the immediate danger: the longer term consequences would have to be left for another day.
The second conclusion is that it would be a mistake to write off the manufacturing sector. There are two reasons for saying this. Firstly, it still makes an important contribution to the overall economy, even if the rate of profit is lower. The contribution of 17% or even 11.6% to the total economy is not insignificant (and in reality is probably larger once the non-productive parts of the service sector are taken into account), and while the balance on the trade in goods has remained negative for many decades, it accounts for the major part of exports from Britain. Secondly, the present crisis exposes the danger of over reliance on one part of the economy. This explains why the Cameron government is giving prominence to the role that manufacturing can play in any recovery and why the promotion of British trade has recently become a more important part of Britain’s foreign policy. Whether this is realistic is another matter as it will require attacks on the costs of production beyond anything achieved by Thatcher and will go against both the historical and more immediate trends of the global economy. Britain cannot compete directly with the likes of China so will have to look for particular niches.
All of this brings us to the question “What hope for an economic recovery?”

What hope for an economic recovery?

The global context

“…recent data indicate the global recovery is slowing after an initially rapid recovery. Output in the west is still far below pre-2008 trends. Stubbornly high US unemployment is blighting lives and souring politics. Europe narrowly avoided sparking a second worldwide crisis in May when its big economies agreed a bail-out fund for Greece and other highly indebted countries at risk of sovereign default. Japan has intervened in currency markets for the first time in six years to stop an appreciation of the yen hurting its exports” These are the words of an article in the Financial Times[18] on the eve of the bi-annual gathering of the IMF and World Bank in early October and reflect the concerns of the bourgeoisie.
We can note that the recovery plans in Europe had so far failed to produce very strong rates of growth and emphasised above all the growth of national debt that in some countries has led to questions about the state’s ability to repay its debts. Greece is at the forefront of this group of countries but Britain is also included amongst those where the level of debt presents a risk. The graph below, despite its reassuring title, shows that in the US and many European countries the level of debt poses a risk. Britain may not have as much total debt as some countries (the horizontal axis) but its current account deficit is the highest (the vertical axis), indicating the rapidity with which it has recently been accumulating debt.

Two different strategies have been adopted to deal with the recession: that favoured by the US of continuing to use debt; and that increasingly being adopted across Europe of cutting the deficit and imposing programmes of austerity. The US is in a position to do this because the continuing role of the dollar as the global reference currency allows it to fund its deficit by printing dollars, an option unavailable to its rivals. Other countries are more constrained by their debts and this fact in itself presents some elements towards answering the question we have posed on the limits of debt. A recent international development has been an increase in efforts to use exchange rates to gain advantage. One cause of this is the effort to use exports to restore the economy. A second cause is the struggle between surplus and deficit countries over exchange rates. This is led by China and the US where a devaluation of the dollar against the yuan would not only reduce the competitiveness of Chinese goods but would also devalue its massive holdings of US dollars (this is one of the reasons it has used some of its reserves to buy assets in a number of countries, including Britain). There is a suggestion that quantitative easing plays a role in devaluing currencies since it increases the supply of money, which gives a new perspective to the recent announcement by Japan of a further round of QE and the suggestion that the US and Britain are considering the same. What this poses is the loss of the unity seen in the midst of the crisis and its replacement by the attitude of looking after number one. Commenting on these developments a columnist in the Financial Times recently wrote, “As in the 1930s, everyone is looking to export their way out of trouble, which everyone, by definition, cannot do. So global imbalances are on the rise again, as is the risk of protectionism.”[19] The pressures are growing but we cannot yet say whether the bourgeoisie will succumb to them.
What this means is that all options carry real dangers and there is no obvious route out of the crisis. The lack of solvent demand will renew the pressure that has led to the escalation of debt and reanimate the protectionist reflex that has been long contained, while austerity policies risk further reducing demand and thus provoking a further recession, greater protectionism and strengthening pressure to return to the use of debt. In this perspective the resort to further debt seems the most immediately obvious since it will be a continuation of developments over the last decades, but it poses the question of whether there are limits to debt and, if there are, what they are and whether we are at those limits. For this report, we can conclude from recent developments and the crisis sparked off by Greece that there are limits to debt – or rather a point at which the consequences of increased debt begin to undermine its effectiveness and destabilise the world economy. If Greece was unable to make its payments, not only would there have been a serious depression within the country but there would also have been a significant disruption of the international financial system. The fall in the stock market prior to the EU/IMF bailout shows the sensitivity of the bourgeoisie to this.

The options for British capitalism

The British bourgeoisie is at the forefront of those choosing austerity with its plan to eliminate the deficit in four years requiring cuts of around a quarter in state spending. Beyond the state sector, its plan to cut benefits to make work more attractive is clearly aimed at lowering the cost of labour throughout the economy in an effort to increase the competitiveness and profitability of the British capitalism. This is being sold under the flag of the national interest and an attempt to suggest that the crisis was the fault of the Labour Government rather than global capitalism (we will look at this ideological campaign in more detail in the part of this report that deals with the life of the bourgeoisie).
In previous reports we have analysed that British capitalism has recently produced surplus value by increasing the rate of absolute exploitation of the working class and has realised it through an increase of debt, in particular of private debt fuelled by the housing boom and the explosion of unsecured lending. Building on this, the report to the last WR congress emphasised the overall importance of the service sector while the current report has confirmed this but clarified that it does not stem from the sector as a whole and has emphasised the particular role played by the financial sector. On the basis of this framework, it is worth considering how the three elements of the response to the crisis – debt, austerity and exports – relate to the situation facing Britain.
Prior to the crisis personal debt underpinned economic growth for several years, both directly through the debt accumulated by households in Britain and indirectly through the financial institutions’ role in the global debt market. Once the crisis broke state debt was used to protect these financial institutions and, to a much lesser extent, to offer protection to households (the increase in protection to savings to £50,000) while the rate of growth of personal debt declined and some individuals were pushed into insolvency. At present the level of private debt is falling very slightly while savings are increasing and the government has announced its determination to halve the deficit. Unless there is a reversal of these developments it seems unlikely that debt will contribute to any recovery. The austerity ahead may have two opposing impacts on the working class. On the one hand it may push many to limit expenditure and to try to repay debts in order to protect themselves. On the other hand it may drive others to resort to debt to make ends meet. However, this is likely to come up against the reluctance of banks to lend. The financial sector was dependent on the development of global debt for much of its growth prior to the crash and at present there are attempts to find alternatives, resulting, for example, in the increased activity in food markets. However, such activity still ultimately depends on the presence of solvent demand, which returns us to our starting point. If the US continues on the path of increasing debt, British capitalism may be able to benefit given its position within the global financial system; which suggests that for all the rhetoric of the likes of Vince Cable,[20] action will not be taken to rein in the bankers and that the strategy of deregulation begun under Thatcher will continue.
Austerity seems to be the main strategy at present. The overt aim is to reduce the deficit, with the implicit promise that once this has been done things will return to normal. But to have any lasting impact on the competitiveness of British capital permanent changes will need to be made. Hopes may be placed on a dramatic increase in productivity, but this has failed to materialise for decade after decade. Unless there is substantial investment in areas related to rising productivity, such as research and development, education and infrastructure, this is unlikely to happen. The evidence already points to cuts in these areas so the more likely option will be an effort to permanently reduce the proportion of surplus value taken by the state and the proportion of the total value produced assigned to the working class. In short, a reduction in the size of the state and lower wages. However, to be effective the scale of attacks on the working class required will be massive, while a reduction in the size of the state goes against the trend seen throughout the period of decadence where the state is required to increase its domination of society in order to defend its economic and imperialist interests and to prevent the contradictions at the heart of bourgeois society from tearing it apart.
Exports can only play a role if the bourgeoisie is successful in its efforts to make British capitalism more competitive. This will come up against the efforts of all of its rivals to do the same. The service sector in Britain is profitable and it may be possible to increase its relatively low level of exports. However, this runs into the difficulty that the most profitable parts of this sector seem to be those linked to the global financial system, which makes it development dependent on a global recovery.
In summary, there is no easy path for British capitalism. The most likely direction seems to be a continued reliance on its position within the global financial system alongside a programme of austerity to bolster profits. In the longer term however, it can only face a continued deterioration of its position.

The impact of the crisis on the working class

The impact of the crisis on the working class provides the objective basis for our analysis of the class struggle. This section will concentrate on the material situation of the working class. The questions of the ideological offensive of the ruling class and the development of class consciousness will be taken up other parts of the report…
One of the immediate impacts of the crisis on the working class was an increase in unemployment. The rate rose steadily during most of 2008 and 2009, increasing the total by 842,000 to 2.46 million or 7.8% of the working population. However, this was below the increases seen in the recessions in the early 80s and 90s when the rates rose to 8.9% (an increase of 932,000) and 9.2% (an increase of 622,000) respectively. This is despite the fact that the fall in GDP has been greater in the present recession than the previous two.

One recent study has suggested that the fall in GDP in this recession might have been expected to increase unemployment by a million more than it actually has,[21] which poses the question of why this has not happened. The study cited suggests this was due to “firms’ strong financial position at the start of the recession and the smaller financial squeeze on firms in this recession”, which in turn was due to three factors: “Firstly policies aimed at assisting the banking system, cutting interest rates and the large government deficit creating a strong stimulus. Secondly, the flexibility of workers in allowing real falls in wage costs to firms aided by low interest rates which sustained real wage growth for consumers. Finally, firms holding on to valuable labour, whilst facing the pressure on profits and the severity of the financial crisis.”
The evidence certainly supports the argument about falls in wage costs, which were achieved through reductions in the hours worked (and thus paid) and in below inflation pay rises. Part time working has increased since the late 70s when it was just over 16% of the workforce and reached 22% in 1995. It has risen further in this recession with the majority taking part time work because they had no alternative.[22] The number of such under-employed people rose to over 1 million. There has been a small fall in the average hours worked each week, from 32.2 to 31.7, but across the workforce this equates to 450,000 jobs with average hours.
The reduction in real wages stemmed from both low settlements and rising inflation??. The overall result was that firms saved about 1% of real wage costs.
However, this is not the whole picture. While recent years have seen efforts to force people off benefits and while there has been no increase during the present recession, the legacy of the use of things like incapacity benefit to mask unemployment continues to have an impact, as the graph below shows.

Further, in the last two recessions unemployment continued to rise long after the recession formally ended. In the 1980s it took 8 years for employment levels to reach those at the start of the recession and in the 1990s it took nearly nine years. While the rate of increase in this recession may have levelled off sooner than in the previous two there are reasons why this may only be a temporary interlude since not only will the austerity measures lead to hundreds of thousands of state employees being sacked but the possible double-dip recession these measures may produce, coupled with the uncertain global situation means that unemployment may well begin to increase again. Annual growth rates of 2% are considered necessary before employment starts to rise and of 2.5% if modest population growth is also allowed for. None of the projections for Britain are currently at this level.
Those who become unemployed remain out of work for longer as the number of vacancies remains substantially below the number looking for work. The longer the period of unemployment the more likely the person is to become unemployed again in the future. By the start of 2010 700,000 people were classed as long term unemployed, having been without a job for 12 months or more. It is worth noting here the impact of unemployment on those affected: “An indication of the real cost of this flexibility was provided in a recent study of the impact of the recession on mental health. This found that 71% of people who have lost a job in the past year have experienced symptoms of depression, with those aged 18-30 most affected. Around half said they have experienced stress or anxiety.”[23]
One aspect of the reduction in wages and the general worsening of conditions is a fall in consumption. Although some of the studies cited suggest there has been little reduction others suggest there was a fall of 5% during 2008 and 2009. Quite obviously for most people this is not a matter of choice but the simple consequence of losing a job, working fewer hours or taking a direct pay cut.
Official figures show falls in child and pensioner poverty during the period of the Labour government and average living standards rising at 2% a year. However this has slowed in recent years. At the same time inequality has grown and poverty amongst working age adults is at its highest level since 1961.[24] Overall, poverty has increased by between 1% and 1.8% over the last four or five years (0.9 or 1.4 million people) to 18.1% or 22.3% (the difference depends on whether income is measured before or after housing costs).

Although there has recently been a slight decline in the level of personal debt (at the rate of 19p a day), in July this year the annual growth rate was still 8% and the total owed was £1,456bn,[25] which as we have pointed out before is more than the total produced in the country each year. This comprises £1,239bn in secured lending on homes and £217bn consumer credit lending. It is estimated that average families have to spend 15% of their net income to service debt payments.
This situation has resulted in an increase in the number of personal bankruptcies and Individual Voluntary Arrangements. This increased significantly from 67,000 in 2005 to between 106,000 and 107,000 in during 2006 to 2008 before jumping again to reach 134,000 in 2009. The first quarter of this year saw another 36,500, which if continued would mean a further increase.[26] This rate is very substantially above that seen in previous recessions, although legal changes make direct comparisons difficult.[27]
Accompanying the fall in the growth of personal debt, the ONS reports an increase in the rate of household saving from -0.9% at the start of 2008 to 8.5% at the end of 2009.[28] It seems that many workers are trying to prepare for the hard times ahead.


Although the impact of the crisis on the working class is greater than the publications of the bourgeoisie tend to present it as, it has nonetheless been relatively contained both at the level of employment and of income. In part this is due to circumstances, in part to the strategy adopted by the bourgeoisie including the use of debt, and in part to the response of the working class, which seems to have focussed more on surviving the recession than combating it. However, it is unlikely that this situation will continue. Firstly, the overall global economic situation will remain very difficult, as the bourgeoisie is unable to resolve the fundamental contradictions undermining the foundations of its economy. Secondly, the strategy of the British ruling class has now switched to one of imposing austerity, partly because of the global situation. It could conceivably return to the use of debt in the short term but the cost would be to worsen the long-term problems. Thirdly, the impact on the working class will increase in the period ahead and so will contribute to further developing the objective conditions for a development of the class struggle.

[1]. World Bank, Global Economic Prospects, Summer 2010, Key Messages.
[2]. Ibid, p.3.
[3]. Much of the data in this section is taken from the Economic and Labour Market Review of August 2010, published by the Office for National Statistics. Other data is taken from the Blue Book, that deals with the UK’s national accounts, the Pink Book that deals with the balance of payments and Financial Statistics, all of which are published by the ONS.
[4]. Economic and Labour Market Review, August 2010, p.57.
[5]. ONS Pink Book, 2010 Edition, p.34.
[6]. Bank of England, Inflation Report, February 2009, p.17
[7]. Financial Times, “That elusive spark”, 06/10/10.
[8]. These figures are from the Economic and Labour Market Review, September 2010, p.19. The Review took the forecasts for the Euro area and the OECD from the OECD’s Economic Outlook of November 2009.
[9]. Republished in World Revolution n° 312 and 313.
[10]. Blue Book 2010, p.22.
[11]. Ibid, p.88.
[12]. Economic and Labour Market Review, August 2010, p.57.
[13]. Andrew Haldane, “The Contribution of the Financial Sector: Miracle or Mirage”, Bank of England, July 2010.
[14]. Ibid.
[15]. See Capital, Vol. II, Chapter VI, “Costs of Circulation”.
[16]. IR no.114, “The reality of ‘economic prosperity’ laid bare by the crisis”, p.16.
[17]. The development of production in China and other low-cost producers is credited with keeping the rate of global inflation relatively stable over recent decades and with reducing the costs of labour throughout the world, including in the developed countries, since the supply of workers has massively increased (it has been suggested that the entry of China into the world economy has doubled the supply of labour). Consequently, not only is the rate of profit likely to be higher in the low wage economies themselves, it is also likely to decrease the cost of labour and push up the rate of profit in the developed countries too, resulting in the increase in the average rate of profit that we have noted in a number of articles in the International Review. Whether this is sufficient to create the necessary mass of profit is another matter however.
[18]. “That Elusive Spark”, 06/10/10.
[19]. John Plender, “Currency demands make a common ground elusive”, 06/10/10.
[20]. Member of the Liberal Democrat Party and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills in the coalition government.
[21]. “Employment in the 2008-2009 recession”, Economic and Labour Market Review, August 2010.
[22]. See: Economic and Labour Market Review, September 2010, p.15.
[23]. Guardian, 01/04/10
[24]. Institute for Fiscal Studies, Poverty and Inequality in UK 2010.
[25]. The figures in this paragraph are taken from Debt Facts and Figures for September 2010 compiled by Credit Action.
[26]. Source: ONS, Financial Statistics, August 2010, p.120.
[27]. Economic and Labour Market Review, August 2010, p.61. Between 1979 and 1984 the increase was from 3,500 to 8,229 and between 1989 and 1993 it was from 9,365 to 36,703.
[28]. Ibid, p.60.



Life of the ICC: 

General and theoretical questions: 

The Hungarian Revolution of 1919 (ii): The example of Russia 1917 inspires the workers in Hungary

The example of Russia 1917 inspired the workers in Hungary

In the previous article in this series,[1] we saw how the Social Democratic party, the main rampart of capitalism, carried out a despicable manoeuvre in order to deal with the developing workers' struggle. This manoeuvre aimed at making the communists appear to be responsible for a mysterious attack perpetrated against the editorial board of the Social Democratic paper Népszava. The intention was to criminalise them and so unleash a wave of repression, initially against the communists but then going on to annihilate the new-born workers' councils and destroy any revolutionary spirit in the Hungarian proletariat.

In this second article we will see how this manoeuvre failed and how the revolutionary situation continued to mature so that the Social Democratic party tried another manoeuvre, which was risky but which in the end was a success for capitalism: to ally with the Communist Party, “take power” and organise “the dictatorship of the proletariat”. This blocked the dynamic of rising struggles and the development of proletarian self-organisation and led the revolution into an impasse that resulted in its utter defeat.

March 1919: the crisis of the bourgeois republic

The truth about the attack on the newspaper soon came out. The workers felt that they had been tricked and their indignation grew even more when the torture inflicted upon the communists came to light. The credibility of the Social Democratic party was seriously damaged and this increased the popularity of the Communists. Struggles around specific demands grew in number from the end of February: the peasants seized the land without waiting for the eternal promise of “agrarian reform”,[2] more and more workers flocked to the Budapest workers' council and tumultuous discussions led to bitter criticism of the Social Democratic and union leaders. The bourgeois republic, that had created so many illusions in October 1918, was now a disappointment. The 25,000 soldiers who had been sent home from the front were shut up in their barracks and organised themselves into councils; during the first week of March, not only did the assemblies in the barracks re-elect their representatives – with a significant increase in the number of Communist delegates – they also passed motions stating that, “government orders will not be obeyed unless formerly ratified by the Budapest soldiers' council”.

On 7th March, an extraordinary session of the workers' council of Budapest adopted a resolution which, “demanded the socialisation of all the means of production and that they be placed under the direction of the councils”. Although socialisation without first destroying the bourgeois state apparatus is bound to be a limping measure, this declaration nevertheless expressed the enormous self-confidence of the councils and was a response to two urgent questions: 1) the bosses' sabotage of production, which was completely disorganised by the war effort; 2) the tragic lack of foodstuffs and of goods to satisfy basic needs.

Events took a radical turn. The metal workers' council presented the government with an ultimatum; it gave it five days to hand over power to the proletarian parties.[3] On 19th March, there took place the biggest demonstration seen up to then, which was called by the workers' council of Budapest; the unemployed demanded an allowance and a ration card, as well as the abolition of rents. On 20th, the typographers went on strike; this became generalised from the following day and made two demands: the liberation of the Communist leaders and a “workers' government”.

Although this demonstrates that there was a maturation towards a revolutionary situation, it also shows that the political level was still far below what was necessary for the proletariat to take power. In order to take power and keep it, the proletariat must be able to count on two indispensable factors: the workers' councils and the communist party. In March 1919 the workers' councils in Hungary had just taken their first steps, they had just begun to feel their power and autonomy and they were still trying to free themselves from the stifling control of Social Democracy and the unions. Their two main weaknesses were:

-        their illusions in the possibility of a “workers' government” which would unite the Social Democrats and the Communists. As we will see, this was to be the death knell of a revolutionary development of the situation;

-        they were still organised according to economic sectors: councils of metal workers, of typographers, of textile workers, etc. In Russia, from 1905 onwards, the councils were organised horizontally, regrouping the workers as a whole across divisions of sector, region, nationality, etc; in Hungary there existed both councils based on sector and also horizontal councils within towns, which meant that there was a risk of corporatism and dispersion.

In the first article in this series, we stressed that the Communist Party was still very weak and heterogeneous, that the debate had only just begun to develop within it. It was weakened by the absence of a solid international structure to guide it – the Communist International had only just celebrated its first congress. For these reasons, as we will see, it had enormous weaknesses and an absence of clarity that was to make it an easy victim of the trap that Social Democracy laid for it.

The merger with the Social Democratic party and the proclamation of the Soviet Republic

Colonel Vix, the representative of the Entente,[4] issued an ultimatum, which stipulated that there be created a demilitarised zone within Hungarian territory, to be governed directly by allied command. It was to be 200 kilometres wide, which meant that it would occupy a third of the country.

The bourgeoisie never confronts the proletariat openly. History teaches us that it tries to trap it between two fronts, the left and the right. Here we see the right opening fire with the threat of military occupation; this was to be concretised from April onwards with a full-blown invasion. For its part, the left went into action immediately afterwards with a pathetic declaration by President Karolyi: “Our homeland is in danger. The most serious moment in our history is upon us. (...) The time has come for the Hungarian working class to use its force - the only organised force in the country - and its international relations to save its homeland from anarchy and dismemberment. I therefore propose that a Social Democratic government be formed that will confront the imperialists. The stakes of this struggle are the fate of our country. In order to wage such a struggle it is indispensable that the working class recover its unity and that the agitation and disorder brought about by the extremists, cease. With this in mind, the Social Democrats must find common ground for an agreement with the Communists”.[5]

This crossfire in which the working class was caught up; the right with its military occupation, and the left with the appeal for national defence, converged on the same aim: to save capitalist domination. The military occupation – the worst affront that can be inflicted on a nation state – was really intended to crush the revolutionary tendencies of the Hungarian proletariat. In addition, it enabled the left to drive the workers towards the defence of the fatherland. This kind of trap had been used before; in Russia in October 1917, when the Russian bourgeoisie realised that it was unable to crush the proletariat, it preferred to let German troops occupy Petrograd; at the time the working class parried this manoeuvre well by embarking on the seizure of power. The right-wing Social Democrat Garami revealed the strategy that was to follow in the wake of Count Karolyi's appeal: “entrust the government to the Communists, await the total failure that will be theirs and then, and only then, when rid of these dregs of society, can we form an homogenous government”.[6] The centrist wing of the party[7] adopted the following policy: “As Hungary has essentially been sacrificed by the Entente, which has obviously decided to annihilate the revolution, it would seem that the only tools that the latter has at its disposal are Soviet Russia and the Red Army. To win the support of the latter, the Hungarian working class must essentially wield power and Hungary must become a real popular and soviet republic.” adding that “in order to ensure that the Communists do not abuse this power, it would be better to wield it with them![8]

The left wing of the Social Democratic party defended a proletarian position and tended to evolve towards the Communists. Garami's right-wingers and Garbai's centrists manoeuvred cleverly against them. Garami resigned from all of his responsibilities. The right wing agreed to be sacrificed in favour of the centrist wing which, “declaring its agreement with the communist programme” positioned itself to seduce the left.[9]

Following this U-turn, the new centrist leadership proposed the immediate merger with the Communist Party and nothing less than the seizure of power! A delegation of the Social Democratic Party went to meet Bela Kun in prison and made the proposal to unite the two parties, to form a “workers' party”, to exclude all  “bourgeois parties” and to form an alliance with Russia. The talks took place in the space of one day, at the end of which Bela Kun draw up a six-point statement which, among other things, underlines, “The directive committees of the Hungarian Social Democratic party and of the Hungarian Communist Party have decided in favour of the total and immediate unification of their respective organisations. The name of the new organisation is to be Unified Socialist Party of Hungary (PSUH). (...) The PSUH will immediately take power in the name of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This dictatorship is to be exercised by the councils of workers, peasants and soldiers. There will be no more National Assembly (...). A military and political alliance will be concluded with Russia as completely as is possible.[10]

President Karolyi, who followed these negotiations closely, handed in his resignation and made a declaration addressed “to the world proletariat to obtain help and justice. I resign and hand over power to the proletariat of the Hungarian people.”[11]

During the demonstration of 22nd March, “the ex-Regent, Archduke Franz-Joseph, Philippe-Egalité himself, he too came to take his place at the side of the workers at the demonstration.”[12] The new government, formed the day before with Bela Kun and other Communist leaders, who had been recently freed, was presided over by the centrist Social Democrat Garbai.[13] It had a centrist majority with two places reserved for the left wing and two others for the Communists, one of whom was Bela Kun. So there began a very risky operation which consisted in holding the Communists hostage to Social Democratic policies and in sabotaging the newly formed workers' councils by means of the poisoned framework of the “seizure of power”. The Social Democrats left the leading role to Bela Kun who – completely caught in the trap – became the spokesman and the guarantor for a series of measures that could only destroy his credibility.[14]

“Unity” creates division within the revolutionary forces

The declaration of the “unified” party managed in the first place to halt the regroupment of the left Social Democrats with the Communists, who had been cleverly seduced by the radicalisation of the centrists. But the worst thing was that there was opened up a Pandora's box among the Communists, who split up into various tendencies. The majority, around Bela Kun, became hostage to the Social Democrats; another tendency, formed around Szamuelly, remained within the party but tried to carry out an independent policy; the majority of the anarchists split to form the Anarchist Union, which still supported the government but with an oppositional stance.[15]

The Party, that had been formed only a few months previously and had only just begun to develop its organisation and intervention, dissolved completely. Debate became impossible and its old members were in permanent opposition to one another. They did not have the support of a framework of principles or independent analysis, but were constantly dragged onwards by the evolution of events and the subtle manoeuvres of the centrist Social Democrats.

The disorientation about what was really happening in Hungary even affected Lenin, a militant with considerable experience and lucidity. In his complete works there is a transcription of the discussions with Bela Kun on 22nd and 23rd March 1919.[16] Lenin asks Bela Kun: “Please inform us what real guarantees you have that the new Hungarian government will actually be a communist, and not simply a socialist, government, i.e. one of the traitor-socialists. Have the Communists a majority in the government? When will the Congress of Soviets take place? What does the socialists’ recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat really amount to?” Lenin asks the right basic questions. However, as everything depends on personal contact and not on collective international debate, Lenin concludes: “Comrade Bela Kun's reply was quite satisfactory and dispelled all our doubts. It appears that the Left Socialists had visited Bela Kun in prison to consult him about forming a government. And it was only these Left Socialists, who sympathised with the Communists, and also people from the Centre who formed the new government, while the Right Socialists, the traitor-socialists, the irreconcilables and incorrigibles, so to speak, left the Party and not a single worker followed them.” We can see from this that Lenin was at least badly informed or else he did not evaluate the situation correctly, because the Social Democratic centre was in the majority in the government and the left Social Democrats were in the hands of their centrist “friends”.

Carried away by a debilitating optimism, Lenin concludes: “The bourgeoisie itself has handed over power to the Communists in Hungary. The bourgeoisie has shown to the whole world that when there is a serious crisis, when the nation is in danger, it is unable to govern. The only power that the people really want is the power of the councils of worker, soldier and peasant deputies.

Once hoisted to power, the workers' councils are sabotaged

In reality this power existed only on paper. In the first place, it was the Unified Socialist Party that took power without any participation whatsoever on the part of the Budapest council or any other council in the country.[17]  Although the government formally declared itself to be “subordinate” to the Workers' Council of Budapest, in fact it was the one who issued decrees, orders and decisions of every kind, as the facts attest, and the Council had no more than a relative right of veto. The workers' councils were tied up in the straitjacket of parliamentary practice. “Proletarian affairs continued to be administered – or more precisely sabotaged – by the old bureaucracy and not by the workers' councils themselves, which therefore never managed to become active organisms.[18]

The most brutal blow against the councils was the government's call for elections in order to form a “National Assembly of Workers' Councils”. The electoral system imposed by the government was to concentrate the elections on two dates (7th and 14th April 1919), “following the modalities of formal democracy (vote using electoral lists, with cubicles, etc)[19]. This is a reproduction of the mechanism typical of bourgeois elections, which simply sabotages the very essence of the workers' councils. Whereas in the case of bourgeois democracy the elected organs are the result of a vote made by a sum of atomised individuals who are completely separated one from another, the Workers' Councils are based on a radically new and different concept of political action: decisions and action to be taken are thought out and discussed during debates in which a huge and organised mass participates and the latter do not just make the decisions but they themselves carry them out.

The triumph of the electoral manoeuvre was due to the clever manoeuvres of the Social Democrats, who exploited the confusions existing not only within the masses but also within the majority of its Communist militants and especially in Bela Kun's group. Years of participation in elections and in parliament – activities that were necessary for proletarian groups during the ascendant period of capitalism – had produced habits and a vision belonging to a past that had decisively ended and which impeded a clear reply to the new situation; one that necessitated a complete break with parliamentarism and electoralism.

The electoral mechanism and the demand for discipline to the “unified” party meant that, as Szanto put it, “in presenting the candidates for election to the councils, the Communists were obliged to defend the Social Democratic cause and even so, many of them were not elected”; and he adds that this enabled the Social Democrats to give vent to “a revolutionary and communist verbiage that made them seem more revolutionary than the Communists![20]

This policy produced lively resistance. The April elections were contested in the 8th district of Budapest and Szamuelly managed to get the official list of his own party annulled (!) and to impose elections based on debate at mass assemblies. This gave the victory to a coalition of dissidents from the PSUH and to the anarchists, regrouped around Szamuelly.

Other attempts to bring to life real workers' councils took place in mid-April. A movement of the district councils managed to hold a Conference of District Councils in Budapest, which harshly criticised the “soviet government” and put forward a series of proposals regarding provisioning, the counter-revolutionary repression, the relationship with the peasantry, the continuation of the war; and it proposed – just one month after the elections! - new elections to the councils. Held hostage to the Social Democrats, Bela Kun made an appearance at the last session of the conference in the role of duty fireman and with a speech brimming with demagogy: “We are already so far to the left that it is impossible to go further. To veer still further to the left could only be counter-revolution.[21]

Economic re-organisation based on the unions against the councils

The attempt at revolution came up against economic chaos, scarcity and the sabotage of the bosses. Although it is true that the proletarian revolution's centre of gravity is the political power of the councils, this does not in any way mean that it can afford to neglect the control of production. Just because it is impossible to begin the revolutionary transformation of production towards communism until the revolution is victorious internationally, we should not conclude that the proletariat does not need to carry out an economic policy from the very beginning of the revolution. This has to deal with two main issues in particular: the first is to adopt all possible measures to reduce the exploitation of the workers and to guarantee them the maximum free time so that they can devote their energy to the active participation in the workers’ councils. With this in mind, under pressure from the Workers' Council of Budapest, the government took measures such as eliminating piecework and reducing the working day, with the aim of “enabling the workers to participate in the political and cultural life of the revolution.[22]  The second issue is the struggle to guarantee supplies and prevent sabotage in order to prevent hunger and the inevitable economic chaos from sounding the death knell of the revolution. In the face of this problem, from January 1919 the workers formed factory councils and councils by sector; and, as we saw in the first article in this series, the Budapest Council adopted an audacious plan to control supplies satisfying basic needs. But the government, which should have been supporting them, carried out a systematic policy of taking production and supplies out of their hands and handing it over increasingly to the unions. Bela Kun made serious mistakes here. In May 1919, he declared: “Our industrial apparatus is based on the unions. The latter must be emancipated and transformed into powerful corporations that encompass first the majority and then all of the individuals in a given branch of industry. The unions participate in technical management and their activity tends to gradually take on the task of management as a whole. In this way they guarantee that the main economic organs of the regime and the working population pull together and that the workers get used to conducting economic life.[23] Roland Bardy criticises this analysis: “Imprisoned in an abstract framework, Bela Kun was unable to realise that the logic of his position led to handing back to the socialists the power that had been gradually taken from them (...) For a long period the unions would be the bastion of reformist Social Democracy and would constantly come into direct competition with the soviets.”[24]

The government managed to ensure that only the unionised workers and peasants had access to the co-operatives and to the stewardship of consumption. This gave the unions an essential lever of control. Bela Kun theorised this: “the communist regime is that of an organised society. Anyone who wants to live and to be successful must belong to an organisation, so the unions should not place obstacles to membership.[25] As Bardy points out: “Opening up the unions to everyone was the best way to destroy the proletarian majority within them and, in the long term, make it possible to 'democratically' re-establish class society” in fact, “the old bosses, investors and their powerful valets, did not actively participate in production (industry and agriculture) but rather in the administration or in the legal institutions. By enlarging this sector it was possible for the old bourgeoisie to survive as a parasitic class and to have access to the distribution of produce, without even being actively integrated into the productive process.[26] This system favoured speculation and the black market, without ever managing to resolve the problems of famine and scarcity, which caused such suffering to the workers in the large cities.

The government encouraged the formation of large-scale agricultural exploitation directed by a system of “collectivisation”. This was a big swindle. “Commissars of production” were placed at the head of the collective farms. When they were not arrogant bureaucrats, these were...the old landowners! The latter continued to occupy their properties and insisted that the peasants continue to call them “master”.

The collective farms were supposed to spread the revolution to the countryside and guarantee supplies but they did neither. The day workers and poor peasants were profoundly disappointed by the reality of the collective farms and took an increasing distance from the regime. Their managers demanded a deal that the government was unable to guarantee: to supply agricultural products in exchange for fertiliser, tractors and machines. So they sold their produce to speculators and hoarders with the result that hunger and scarcity reached such levels that, in desperation, the Workers' Council of Budapest organised the transformation of parks and gardens into zones for agricultural production.

The evolution of the international revolutionary struggle and the situation in Hungary

The only hope for the Hungarian proletariat to break out of the trap in which it was caught lay