1919: The International of Revolutionary Action

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100 years ago, in March 1919, the first congress of the Communist International (CI) was held: the founding congress of the Third International.

If revolutionary organisations did not have the will to celebrate this event, the foundation of the International would be relegated to the oblivion of history. Indeed, the bourgeoisie is interested in keeping silent about this event, while it continues to shower us with celebrations of all kinds such as the centenary of the end of the First World War. The ruling class does not want the working class to remember its first great international revolutionary experience of 1917-1923. The bourgeoisie would like to be able to finally bury the spectre of the revolutionary wave which gave birth to the CI. This revolutionary wave was the international proletariat's response to the First World War, four years of slaughter and military clashes between the capitalist states to carve up the world.

The revolutionary wave began with the victory of the Russian revolution in October 1917. It manifested itself in the mutinies of soldiers in the trenches and the proletarian uprising in Germany in 1918.

The wave spread throughout Europe, it even reached the countries of the Asian continent (especially China in 1927). The countries of the Americas, such as Canada and the United States to Latin America, were also shaken by this global revolutionary upheaval.

We must not forget that it was fear of the international expansion of the Russian revolution that forced the bourgeoisie of the great European powers to sign the armistice to end the First World War.

In this context, the founding of the Communist International in 1919 represented the culmination of this first revolutionary wave.

The Communist International was founded to give a clear political orientation to the working masses. Its objective was to show the proletariat the way to overthrow the bourgeois state and build a new world without war and exploitation. We can recall here what the Statutes of the CI affirmed (adopted at its Second Congress in July 1920):

"The Communist International was formed after the conclusion of the imperialist war of 1914-18, in which the imperialist bourgeoisie of the different countries sacrificed 20 million men.

'Remember the imperialist war!' These are the first words addressed by the Communist International to every working man and woman; wherever they live and whatever language they speak. Remember that because of the existence of capitalist society a handful of imperialists were able to force the workers of the different countries for four long years to cut each other's throats. Remember that the war of the bourgeoisie conjured up in Europe and throughout the world the most frightful famine and the most appalling misery. Remember, that without the overthrow of capitalism the repetition of such robber wars is not only possible, but inevitable."

The foundation of the CI expressed first and foremost the need for revolutionaries to come together to defend the principle of proletarian internationalism. A basic principle of the workers' movement that the revolutionaries had to preserve and defend against wind and tide!

To understand the importance of the foundation of the CI, we must first recall that the Third International was in historical continuity with the First International (the IWMA) and the Second International (the International of social democratic parties). This is why the Manifesto of the CI stated:

“In rejecting the timidity, the lies, and the corruption of the obsolete official socialist parties, we communists, united in the Third International, consider that we are carrying on in direct succession the heroic endeavours and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg. If the First International predicted the future course of development and indicated the roads it would take, if the Second International rallied and organised millions of proletarians, then the Third International is the International of open mass struggle, the International of revolutionary realisation, the International of action.”

It is therefore clear that the CI did not come from nowhere. Its principles and revolutionary programme were the emanation of the whole history of the workers' movement, especially since the Communist League and the publication of the Manifesto written by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in 1848. It was in the Communist Manifesto they put forward the famous slogan of the workers’ movement: "The proletarians have no country. Proletarians of all countries, unite!"

To understand the historical significance of the founding of the CI, we must remember that the Second International died in 1914. Why? Because the main parties of this Second International, the Socialist parties, had betrayed proletarian internationalism. The leaders of these treacherous parties voted for war credits in parliament. In each country, they called the proletarians to join the "Union Sacrée" with their own exploiters. They called on them to kill each other in the world butchery in the name of defending the homeland, when the Communist Manifesto affirmed that "the proletarians have no country"!

Faced with the shameful collapse of the Second International, only a few social democratic parties were able to weather the storm, including the Italian, Serbian, Bulgarian and Russian parties. In other countries, only a small minority of militants, often isolated, remained faithful to proletarian internationalism. They denounced the bloody orgy of war and tried to regroup. In Europe, it was this minority of internationalist revolutionaries who would represent the left, especially around Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, Pannekoek and Gorter in Holland and of course the Bolshevik fraction of the Russian party around Lenin.

From the death of the Second International in 1914 to the founding of the CI in 1919

Two years before the war, in 1912 the Basle congress of the Second International was held. With the threat of a world war in the heart of Europe looming, this congress adopted a resolution on the issue of war and proletarian revolution. This affirmed:

“Let the governments remember that with the present condition of Europe and the mood of the working class, they cannot unleash a war without danger to themselves. Let them remember that the Franco-German War was followed by the revolutionary outbreak of the Commune, that the Russo-Japanese War set into motion the revolutionary energies of the peoples of the Russian Empire (…) The proletarians consider it a crime to fire at each other for the profits of the capitalists, the ambitions of dynasties, or the greater glory of secret diplomatic treaties.”

It was also in the Second International that the most consistent marxist theorists, particularly Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin, were able to analyse the change in the historic period in the life of capitalism. Luxemburg and Lenin had in fact clearly demonstrated that the capitalist mode of production had reached its peak in the early twentieth century.. They understood that the imperialist war in Europe could now have only one goal:  the division of the world between the main rival powers in the race for colonies. Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg understood that the outbreak of the First World War marked the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence and historical decline. But already, well before the outbreak of war, the left wing of the Second International had to fight hard against the right, against the reformists, centrists and opportunists. These future renegades theorised that capitalism still had good days ahead of it and that, ultimately, the proletariat did not need to make the revolution or overthrow the power of the bourgeoisie.

The fight of the left for the construction of a new International

In September 1915, at the initiative of the Bolsheviks, the Zimmerwald International Socialist Conference was held in Switzerland. It was followed by a second conference in April 1916 in Kienthal, Switzerland. Despite the very difficult conditions of war and repression, delegates from eleven countries participated (Germany, Italy, Russia, France, etc.). But the majority of the delegates were pacifists and refused to break with the social chauvinists who had passed into the bourgeoisie's camp by voting for war credits in 1914.

So there was also at the Zimmerwald Conference a left wing united behind the delegates of the Bolshevik fraction, Lenin and Zinoviev. This "Zimmerwald left" defended the need to break with the social democratic party traitors. This left highlighted the need to build a new International. Against the pacifists, it argued, in Lenin's words, that "the struggle for peace without revolutionary action is a hollow and untrue phrase". The left of Zimmerwald had taken up Lenin's slogan: "Turn the imperialist war into a civil war!" A watchword that was already contained in the resolutions of the Second International passed at the Stuttgart Congress in 1907 and especially the Basle Congress in 1912.

The Zimmerwald left would therefore constitute the "first nucleus of the Third International in formation" (as Lenin's companion, Zinoviev, would say in March 1918). The new parties that were created, breaking with social democracy, then began to take the name of "communist party". It was the revolutionary wave opened up by the Russian revolution of October 1917 that gave a vigorous impetus to the revolutionary militants for the founding of the CI. The revolutionaries had indeed understood that it was absolutely vital to found a world party of the proletariat for the victory of the revolution on a world scale.

It was at the initiative of the Communist Party (Bolshevik) of Russia and the Communist Party of Germany (KPD, formerly the Spartacus League) that the first congress of the International was convened in Moscow on 2 March 1919.

The political programme of the Communist International

The platform of the CI was based on the programme of the two main communist parties, the Bolshevik Party and the Communist Party of Germany (founded on 29 December 1918).

This CI platform began by stating clearly that “A new epoch is born! The epoch of the dissolution of capitalism, of its inner disintegration. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat". By taking up the speech on the founding programme of the German Communist Party by Rosa Luxemburg, the International made it clear that " the dilemma faced by humanity today is as follows: fall into barbarism, or salvation through socialism.” In other words, we had entered the "era of wars and revolutions". The only alternative for society was now: world proletarian revolution or destruction of humanity; socialism or barbarism. This position was strongly affirmed in the first point of the Letter of Invitation to the founding congress of the Communist International (written in January 1919 by Trotsky).

For the International, the entry of capitalism into its period of decadence meant that the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat took on a new form. This was the period in which the mass strike was developing, the period when the workers' councils were the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, as announced by the appearance of the soviets in Russia in 1905 and 1917.

But one of the fundamental contributions of the International was the understanding that the proletariat must destroy the bourgeois state in order to build a new society. It is from this question that the First Congress of the International adopted its Theses on bourgeois democracy and proletarian dictatorship (drafted by Lenin). These theses began by denouncing the false opposition between democracy and dictatorship "because, in no civilized capitalist country, is there "democracy in general", but only a bourgeois democracy". The International thus affirmed that to defend "pure" democracy in capitalism was, in fact, to defend bourgeois democracy, the form par excellence of the dictatorship of capital. Against the dictatorship of capital, the International affirmed that only the dictatorship of the proletariat on a world scale could overthrow capitalism, abolish social classes, and offer a future to humanity.

The world party of the proletariat therefore had to give a clear orientation to the proletarian masses to enable them to achieve their ultimate goal. It had to defend everywhere the slogan of the Bolsheviks in 1917: "All power to the soviets". This was the "dictatorship" of the proletariat: the power of the soviets or workers' councils.

From the difficulties of the Third International to its bankruptcy

In March 1919, the International was unfortunately founded too late, at a time when most of the revolutionary uprisings of the proletariat in Europe had been violently repressed. In fact the CI was founded two months after the bloody repression of the German proletariat in Berlin. The Communist Party of Germany had just lost its principal leaders, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, savagely murdered by the social democratic government during the bloody week in Berlin in January 1919. So at the moment when it was constituted the International had suffered its first defeat. With the crushing of the revolution in Germany, this defeat was also and above all a terrible defeat for the international proletariat.

It must be recognised that revolutionaries at the time were facing a terribly urgent situation when they founded the International. The Russian revolution was completely isolated, suffocated and encircled by the bourgeoisie of all countries (not to mention the counter-revolutionary exactions of the White Armies inside Russia). The revolutionaries were caught by the throat and it was necessary to act quickly to build the world party. It is because of this urgency that the main founding parties of the International, including the Bolshevik Party and the KPD, had not been able to clarify their differences and confusions. This lack of clarification was an important factor in the development of opportunism in the International with the reflux of the revolutionary wave.

Subsequently, because of the gangrene of opportunism, this new International died in its turn. It also succumbed to the betrayal of the principle of internationalism by the right wing of the Communist parties. In particular, the main party of the International, the Bolshevik Party, after the death of Lenin had begun to defend the theory of "building socialism in one country". Stalin, taking the head of the Bolshevik Party, was the mastermind of the repression of the proletariat which had made the revolution in Russia, imposing a ferocious dictatorship against Lenin's old comrades who fought against the degeneration of the International and denounced what they saw as the return of capitalism to Russia.

Subsequently, in the 1930s, it was in the name of defending the "Soviet Fatherland" that the Communist parties in all countries trampled the flag of the International in calling on proletarians, again, to kill each other on the battlefields of the Second World War. Just like the Second International in 1914, the CI had become bankrupt. Just like the International in 1914, the CI was also a victim of the gangrene of opportunism and a process of degeneration. But like the Second International, the CI also secreted a left minority, militants who remained loyal to internationalism and the slogan “The proletarians have no country. Proletarians of all countries unite!” These left-wing minorities (in Germany, France, Italy, Holland ...) waged a political fight within the degenerating International to try to save it. But Stalin eventually excluded these militants from the International. He hunted them, persecuted them and liquidated them physically (we recall the Moscow trials, the assassination of Trotsky by GPU agents and also the Stalinist Gulags).

The revolutionaries excluded from the Third International also sought to regroup, despite all the difficulties of war and repression. Despite their scattering in different countries, these tiny minorities of internationalist militants were able to make a balance sheet (bilan) of the revolutionary wave of 1917-1923 in order to identify the main lessons for the future.

The revolutionaries who fought Stalinism did not seek to found a new International, before, during or after the Second World War. They understood that it was "midnight in the century": the proletariat had been physically crushed, massively mobilised behind the national flags of anti-fascism and the victim of the deepest counter-revolution in history. The historic situation was no longer favourable to the emergence of a new revolutionary wave against the World War.

Nevertheless, throughout this long period of counter-revolution, the revolutionary minorities continued to carry out an activity, often in hiding, to prepare for the future by maintaining confidence in the capacity of the proletariat to raise its head and one day overthrow capitalism. .

We want to recall that the ICC reclaims the contribution of the Communist International. Our organisation also considers itself in political continuity with the left fractions excluded from the International in the 1920s and 30s, especially the Italian Fraction of the Communist Left. This centenary is therefore both an opportunity to salute the invaluable contribution of the CI in the history of the workers' movement, but also to learn from this experience in order to arm the proletariat for its future revolutionary struggles.

Once again, we must fully understand the importance of the founding of the Communist International as the first attempt to constitute the world party of the proletariat. Above all, we must emphasise the importance of the historical continuity, of the common thread which connects the revolutionaries of today and those of the past, of all those militants who, because of their fidelity to the principles of the proletariat, were persecuted and savagely murdered by the bourgeoisie, and especially by their old comrades who became traitors: Noske, Ebert, Scheidemann, Stalin. We must also pay tribute to all those exemplary militants  (Rosa Luxemburg, Karl Liebknecht, Leo Jogiches , Trotsky and many others) who paid with their lives for their loyalty to internationalism.

To be able to build the future world party of the proletariat, without which the overthrow of capitalism will be impossible, revolutionary minorities must regroup, today as in the past. They must clarify their differences through the confrontation of positions, collective reflection and the widest possible discussion. They must be able to learn from the past in order to understand the present historical situation and to allow new generations to open the doors of the future.

Faced with the decomposition of capitalist society, the barbarism of war, the exploitation and growing misery of proletarians, today the alternative remains the one that the Communist International clearly identified 100 years ago: socialism or barbarism, world proletarian revolution or destruction of humanity in an increasingly bloody chaos.




History of the Working Class