German Revolution, X: The reflux of the revolutionary wave and the degeneration of the International

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The victorious conquest of power by the working class in Russia in October 1917 lit a flame that illuminated the whole world. The working class of neighbouring countries immediately followed the example given by the Russian workers. In November 1917 the working class in Finland joined the fight. In the Czech provinces, in Poland, in Austria, in Rumania and Bulgaria in 1918, waves of strikes shook the regimes in power. And when, in turn, in November 1918, the German workers took the stage, the revolutionary wave had reached a key country, a country which would be decisive for the ultimate outcome of the struggles, and where the defeat or victory of the revolution would be determined.

The German bourgeoisie responded by putting an end to the war in November 1918, and by using Social Democracy and the unions - working hand in glove with the army - to sabotage the movement and to empty it of its content. Finally, through provoking a premature uprising and above all by making full use of the forces of 'democracy', the bourgeoisie prevented the working class from taking power and thus extending the Russian revolution.

The international bourgeoisie unites to stop the revolutionary wave

The series of uprisings which took place in 1919, in Europe as in other continents, the foundation of the Hungarian soviet republic in March, the formation of workers' councils in Slovakia in June, the wave of strikes in France in the spring as well as the powerful struggles in the USA and Argentina, all these events took place at a time when the extension of the revolution to Germany had suffered a major set-back. Since the key player in the extension of the revolution, the working class in Germany, had not succeeded in overthrowing the capitalist class with a sudden and rapid assault, the wave of struggles began to lose its élan in 1919. Although the workers continued to battle heroically against the offensive of the bourgeoisie in a series of confrontations, in Germany itself with the Kapp putsch in March 1920 and in Italy in the autumn of the same year, these struggles did not manage to push the movement forward.

By the same token, these struggles did not break the offensive that the capitalist class had launched against the isolated proletarian bastion in Russia. In the spring of 1918, the Russian bourgeoisie, which had been overthrown very quickly and almost without any violence, began to wage a civil war, supported by 14 armies of the 'democratic' states. In this civil war, which was to last almost three years and was accompanied by an economic blockade aimed at starving the workers, the White armies of the capitalist states bled the Russian working class dry. After the years of blockade and encirclement, the Russian working class, through the military offensive of the Red Army, had won the civil war, but it was completely exhausted, with over a million dead, and, above all, it was politically enfeebled.

At the end of 1920, when the working class had already been through its first major defeat in Germany, when the working class in Italy had been caught in the trap of the factory occupations, when the Red Army had failed in its march on Warsaw, the communists began to understand that the hopes for a rapid and continuous extension of the revolution were not going to materialise. At the same time the capitalist class realised that the principal, mortal danger represented by the insurrection in Germany had retreated, for the moment at least.

The generalisation of the revolution had been countered above all because the capitalist class had quickly drawn the lessons of the workers' successful conquest of power in Russia.

The historical explanation of the explosive development of the revolution, and its rapid defeat, lies in the fact that it arose in response to an imperialist war, and not to a generalised economic crisis as Marx had envisaged. Unlike the situation which prevailed in 1939, the proletariat had not been defeated in a decisive manner before the First World War; it was thus capable, despite three years of carnage, of coming up with a revolutionary answer to the open barbarism of world imperialism. Putting an end to the war and thus preventing the massacre of even more millions could only be done rapidly and decisively, by directly attacking the regimes in power. This is why the revolution, once it had broken out, developed and spread so quickly. And in the revolutionary camp, everyone hoped for a rapid victory of the revolution, at least in Europe.

However, while the bourgeoisie is incapable of ending the economic crisis of its system, it can stop an imperialist war when it is faced with the threat of revolution. This is what it did once the revolutionary wave reached the heart of the world proletariat in Germany, in November 1918. In this way the exploiters were able to reverse the dynamic towards the international extension of the revolution.

The balance sheet of the 1917-23 revolutionary wave shows conclusively that world war, even before the era of atomic weapons, does not provide a favourable soil for the victory of the proletariat. As Rosa Luxemburg argued in The Junius Pamphlet, modern world war, by killing millions of proletarians, including the most experienced and conscious battalions of the class, poses a threat to the very foundations of the victory of socialism. Furthermore, it creates conditions of struggle which are different depending on whether the workers are in the victorious or the losing countries. It was no accident that the revolutionary wave was strongest in the camp of the defeated, in Russia, Germany, in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but also in Italy (which only formally belonged to the victorious side), and that it was much less strong in countries like Britain, France and the US. These latter were not only able to temporarily stabilise their economies thanks to the spoils of war, but also to contaminate many workers with the euphoria of 'victory'. The bourgeoisie even succeeded to some extent in stoking up the fires of chauvinism. Thus, despite the world wide solidarity with the October revolution and the growing influence of internationalist revolutionaries during the course of the war, the nationalist poison secreted by the ruling class continued to do its destructive work in the proletariat once the revolution had begun. The revolutionary movement in Germany gives us some edifying examples of this: the influence of extremist and so-called 'left communist' nationalism - that of the 'national Bolsheviks' who, during the war, in Hamburg distributed anti-semitic leaflets against the Spartacist leadership because of its internationalist positions; the patriotic feelings sharpened after the signing of the Versailles Treaty; the anti-French chauvinism stirred up by the occupation of the Ruhr in 1923, etc. As we will see in a subsequent article, the Communist International, in its phase of opportunist degeneration, more and more tried to ride this nationalist wave instead of opposing it.

But the intelligence and deviousness of the German bourgeoisie was not only revealed when it put an end to the war as soon as the workers began to launch their assault on the state. Unlike the working class in Russia, which was faced with a weak and inexperienced bourgeoisie, the German workers came up against a unified bloc of the forces of capital, with Social Democracy and the unions at its head.

By drawing maximum profit from the illusions the workers still had in democracy, by using and aggravating the divisions resulting from the war, notably between 'victors' and 'vanquished', by setting up a whole series of political manoeuvres and provocations, the capitalist class succeeded in luring the working class into traps and defeating it.

The extension of the revolution had been halted. Having survived the first wave of workers' reactions, the bourgeoisie could then go onto the offensive. It was to do everything in its power to turn the balance of forces in its favour.

We will now examine how the revolutionary organisations reacted in the face of this blockage in the class struggle and what were {he consequences for the working class in Russia.

The Communist International between its 2nd and 3rd Congresses

When the working class began to move in Germany in November 1918, the Bolsheviks, from December, began calling for an international conference. At this time most revolutionaries thought that the conquest of power by the working class in Germany would succeed at least as quickly as in Russia. In the letter of invitation to his conference, it was proposed that it be held in Germany (legally) or in Holland (illegally) on 1 February 1919. Initially, no-one foresaw holding it in Russia. But the crushing of the Berlin workers in January, the assassination of the revolutionary leaders Luxemburg and Liebknecht, and the repression organised by the Freikorps under the direction of the SPD made it impossible to hold this meeting in the German capital. It was only at this point that Moscow was chosen. When the Communist International was founded in March 1919, Trotsky wrote in Izvestia on 29 April 1919: "If today the centre of the Third International lies in Moscow - and of this we are profoundly convinced - then on the morrow this centre will shift west- ward: to Berlin, to Paris, to London".

For all the revolutionary organisations the policy of the CI was determined by the interests of the world revolution. The initial debates at the congress were centred on the situation in Germany, on the role of Social Democracy in crushing the working class in January and the necessity to combat this party as a capitalist force.

In the article just mentioned Trotsky wrote: "The revolutionary 'primogeniture' of the Russian proletariat is only temporary ... The dictatorship of the Russian working class will be able to finally entrench itself and to develop into a genuine, all-sided socialist construction only from the hour when the European working class frees us from the economic yoke and especially the military yoke of the European bourgeoisie". And again: "if the European people do not rise up and overthrow imperialism, it is we who will be overthrown ... there is no doubt about this. Either the Russian revolution opens the floodgates to the struggles in the west, or the capitalists of all countries will annihilate and strangle our struggle" (Trotsky to the 2nd Congress of Soviets).

After several parties had joined the CI in a short space of time, it was noted at its Second Congress in July 1920 "In certain circumstances, there can be a danger of the CI being diluted in a milieu of semi-convinced groups that have not yet freed themselves from the ideology of the 2nd International. For this reason, the 2nd World Congress of the CI considers that it is necessary to establish very precise conditions for the admission of new parties".

Although the International was founded in the heat of the situation, it established certain clear delimitations on questions as central as the extension of the revolution, the conquest of political power, the clearest possible demarcation from Social Democracy and the denunciation of bourgeois democracy. On the other hand other questions, like the unions and the parliamentary question, were left open.

The majority of the CI adopted the orientation of participating in parliamentary elections but without this being an explicit obligation. This was the result of the fact that a strong minority (notably the group around Bordiga , then known as the 'abstentionist fraction') was totally opposed to this. On the other hand, the CI decided that it was obligatory for all revolutionaries to work in the trade unions. The delegates of the KAPD, who in a totally irresponsible manner had left the Congress before it had begun, were unable to defend their point of view on these questions, unlike the Italian comrades. The debate, which had already begun prior to the Congress with the publication of Lenin's Left Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder, would evolve around the question of the methods of struggle in the new epoch of the decadence of capitalism. It was through this political battle that the communist left made its appearance.

With regard to the perspectives for the class struggle, the 2nd Congress was still optimistic. During the summer of 1920 everyone was expecting an intensification of the revolutionary struggle. But after the defeat of autumn 1920, this tendency went into reverse.

The reflux in the class struggle, springboard for opportunism

In the "Theses on the International Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern", at its Third Congress in July 1921, the CI analysed the situation as follows:

"During the year that elapsed between the Second and Third Congresses of the Communist International a series of working class uprisings and battles have resulted in partial defeats (the Red Army offensive against Warsaw in August 1920; the movement of the Italian proletariat in September 1920; the uprising of the German workers in March 1921).

The first period of the revolutionary movement after the war is characterised by the elemental nature of its onslaught, by the considerable formlessness of its methods and aims and by the extreme panic of the ruling classes; and it may be regarded by and large as terminated. The class self-confidence of the bourgeoisie and the outward stability of its slate organs have undoubtedly become strengthened (...) The leaders of the bourgeoisie ... have everywhere assumed the offensive against the working masses, on both the economic and the political fronts (...) In view of this situation the Communist International presents 10 itself and to the entire working class the following questions: To what extent do these new political interrelations between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat correspond to the more profound interrelationship of forces between these two contending camps? Is it true that the bourgeoisie is about to restore the social equilibrium which had been upset by the war? Are there grounds for assuming that the epoch of political paroxysms and class battles is being superseded by a new and prolonged epoch of restoration and capitalist growth? Doesn't this necessitate a revision of programme or tactics on the part of the Communist International?"

And in the "Theses on Tactics" it was suggested that "The world revolution ... will necessitate a longer period of struggles ... The world revolution is not a linear process".

The CI would adapt to the new situation in different ways.

The slogan 'to the masses': a step towards opportunist confusion

In a previous article, we have already looked at the pseudo-theory of the offensive. Part of the CI and a part of the revolutionary camp in Germany were pushing for an 'offensive', to 'strike a blow' in support of Russia. They theorised their adventurism in a 'theory of the offensive', according to which the party can launch an assault on capital, without taking into account the balance of forces or the militancy of the class, as soon as the party is sufficiently brave and determined.

However, history shows that the proletarian revolution cannot be provoked in an artificial manner and that the party cannot compensate for a lack of militancy and initiative among the masses. Even if the CI finally rejected the adventurist actions of the KPD at its Third Congress in July 1921, it then went on to advocate opportunist methods of increasing its influence among the undecided masses: ""to the masses", this is the first slogan that the Third Congress sends to the communists of all countries". In other words, if the masses were marking time, the communists had to go to the masses.

In order to increase its influence among the masses, the CI in autumn 1920, had already pushed for the establishment of mass parties in a number of countries. In Germany, the left wing of the centrist USPD had joined the KPD to form the YKPD in December 1920 (which raised its membership to 400,000). In the same period, the Czech Communist Party with its 350,000 members and the French Communist Party with its 120,000 were admitted to the International.

"From the day of its foundation the Communist International has clearly and unambiguously made its goal the formation not of small communist sects ... but participation in the struggle of the working masses, the direction of this struggle in a communist spirit and the creation in the course of this struggle of experienced, large, revolutionary mass communist parties. From the beginning of its existence, the CI has rejected sectarian tendencies by calling on its associated parties - whatever their size - to participate in the trade unions in order to overturn from within their reactionary bureaucracy and to make the trade unions mass revolutionary organs, organs of struggle ... At its Second Congress the Communist International publicly rejected sectarian tendencies in its resolutions on the trade union question and on arliamentarism ... Thanks to the tactics of the Communist International (revolutionary work in the trade unions, the open letter, etc) communism in Germany ... has become a great revolutionary mass party. In Czechoslovakia, the communists have managed to win over the majority of the politically organised workers ... Sectarian communist groups (like the KAPD) on the other hand, have not had the slightest success" ("Theses on tactics", Third Congress of the CI).

In reality, this debate on the means of the struggle and the possibility of a mass party in the new epoch of decadent capitalism had already begun at the founding congress of the KPD in December 1918-January 1919. At this time, the debate revolved around the union question and around whether it was still possible to use bourgeois parliaments.

Even though, at this congress, Rosa Luxemburg still pronounced herself in favour of participating in parliamentary elections and for working in the unions, it was with the clear vision that new conditions of struggle had arisen, conditions in which revolutionaries had to fight for the revolution with the greatest perseverance and without the naive hope in a 'rapid solution'. Warning against impatience and precipitation, she said with great emphasis: "If I describe the process in this way, it is because this process seems to be a longer one than we at first imagined". Even in the last article she wrote, just before she was murdered, she affirmed: "from all this we can conclude that we cannot expect a final and lasting victory at this moment" ('Order reigns in Berlin').

The analysis of the situation and the evaluation of the balance of forces between the classes has always been one of the primordial tasks for communists. If they do not correctly assume these responsibilities, if they continue to see things moving forward when they are about to move backwards, there is the danger of falling into impatient reactions into adventurism, and into trying to substitute artificial measures for the real movement of the class.

It was the leadership of the KPD, at its conference of October 1919, after the first reflux of the struggles in Germany, which proposed to orient the party towards working in the unions and parliamentary elections in order to increase its influence in the working masses. In doing so it was turning its back on the majority vote taken at the founding congress. Two years later, at the Third Congress of the CI, this debate resurfaced.

The Italian left around Bordiga had already attacked the orientation of the Second Congres on participation in parliamentary elections (see its "Theses on Parliamentarism"), warning against an approach which would be a fertile soil for opportunism. And though the KAPD failed to make itself heard at the Second Congress, its delegation intervened at the Third Congress in more difficult circumstances and fought against this opportunist dynamic. Whereas the KAPD stressed that "the proletariat needs a highly formed party-nucleus", the CI sought salvation in the creation of mass parties. The position of the KAPD was rejected.

As for the opportunist orientation of 'going to the masses', it was to facilitate the adoption of the tactic of the 'United Front', which was adopted a few months after the Third Congress.

What is notable here is that the CI embarked on this journey at a time when the revolution in Europe was not extending and the wave of struggles was in retreat. Just as the Russian revolution of 1917 was only the opening of an international wave of revolutionary struggles, the decline of the revolution and the political regression of the International were simply the result and expression of the evolution of the international balance of class forces. The historically unfavourable circumstances of a revolution emerging out of a world war, combined with the intelligence of the bourgeoisie which had put an end to the war and played the democratic card, had prevented the extension of the revolution and created the conditions for opportunism to grow within the International.

The debate on the evolution of Russia

In order to understand the reactions of revolutionaries to the isolation of the working class in Russia and the change in the balance of forces between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, we have to examine the evolution of the situation in Russia itself.

In October 1917, when the working class, under the leadership of the Bolshevik party, took political power, there was no illusion that socialism could be built in Russia alone. The whole class had its eyes fixed on the outside, awaiting help from there. And when the workers took the first economic measures like the confiscation of the factories and steps towards taking control of production, it was precisely the Bolsheviks who warned them against any false hopes in such measures. The Bolsheviks were particularly clear on the fact that political measures were the vital priority, ie measures oriented towards the generalisation of the revolution. They were clear that the conquest of political power in one country did not do away with capitalism. As long as the working class had not overthrown the ruling class on a world scale, or at least in the most decisive regions, political measures remained primordial and decisive. In the economic sphere, the proletariat could only administer, to the best of its interests, the scarcity that characterises capitalist society.

But the situation was more serious than this. In the spring of 1918 when the capitalist states imposed an economic blockade and entered the civil war on the side of the Russian bourgeoisie, the workers and peasants of Russia faced a truly disastrous economic situation. How were they to resolve the grave problems of food shortages while at the same time dealing with the sabotage orchestrated by the capitalist class? How were they to organise and coordinate the military effort needed to respond to the attacks of the White Armies? Only the state was able to assume such tasks. It was indeed a new state that had arisen after the insurrection and which, at many levels, was still composed of the old layers of functionaries. And to deal with the breadth of the tasks imposed by the civil war and the fight against sabotage from within, the militias of the initial period were no longer sufficient; it was necessary to create a Red Army and special organs of repression.

Thus, while the working class had genuinely held the reins of power in the short period since the October revolution, a period where the main decisions were taken by the soviets, a process rapidly developed in which the soviets were more and more to lose their power and their means of coercion to the benefit of the post-insurrectionary state. Instead of the soviets controlling the state apparatus, exerting their dictatorship over the state and using it as an instrument in the interests of the working class, it was this new "organ" which the Bolsheviks erroneously called a "workers' state" - which began to undermine the power of the soviets and impose its own directives on them. This evolution had its origins in the fact that the capitalist mode of production continued to prevail. Moreover, not only did the post-insurrectionary state not tend to wither away - it tended to swell more and more. This tendency was to become more acute the more the revolutionary wave ceased to extend and began to go into retreat, leaving the working class in Russia increasingly isolated. Less and less was the proletariat able to put pressure on the capitalist class on an international level; less and less was it able to counteract its plans and in particular to prevent its military operations against Russia. In this way the bourgeoisie was to dispose of a greater margin of manoeuvre in order to strangle the revolution in Russia. And it was within this overall dynamic that the post-insurrectionary state in Russia was to develop. Thus, it was the capacity of the bourgeoisie to prevent the extension of the revolution which was at the basis of this state becoming more and more hegemonic and "autonomous".

In order to deal with the growing scarcity imposed by the capitalists, with the bad harvests, with sabotage by the peasants, with the destruction caused by the civil war, with the famines and epidemics which resulted from all this, the state directed by the Bolsheviks was forced to take more and more coercive measures of all kinds, such as the requisitioning of the grain harvest and the rationing of nearly all goods. It was equally forced to try to strike up commercial links with the capitalist countries; this was posed not as a moral question but as a question of survival. Scarcity and trade could only be administered by the state. But who controlled the state?

Who should control the state? The party or the councils?

At the time, the concept that the class party should take power in the name of the proletariat and thus hold the commanding posts in the new state was widely shared among revolutionaries. Thus after October 1917 the leading members of the Bolshevik party occupied the highest positions in the new state and began to identify themselves with the state.

This conception could have been put into question and rejected if, after a number of victorious insurrections elsewhere, and especially in Germany, the working class had triumphed over the bourgeoisie on an international level. After such a victory, the proletariat and its revolutionaries would have been better placed to see the differences, and even the conflict of interests, between the state and the revolution. It would have thus been easier for them to have made a more effective critique of the errors of the Bolsheviks. But the isolation of the Russian revolution meant that the party more and more stood for the interests of the state instead of the interests of the international proletariat. Progressively, every initiative was taken out of the hands of the workers and the state became more and more autonomous, spreading its tentacles everywhere. As for the Bolshevik party, it was at once the main promoter and the main hostage of this development.

At the end of the civil war, the famine got even worse during the winter of 1920-21, to the point where the population of Moscow, part of which tried to flee the famine fell by 50 % , and that of Petrograd by two thirds. Peasant revolts and workers' protests were on the increase. A wave of strikes broke out in the Petrograd region and the Kronstadt sailors were the spearhead of this resistance against the deterioration of living conditions and against the state. They put forward economic and political demands rejecting the dictatorship of the party and calling for the renewal of the soviets.

The state, with the Bolshevik party at its head, decided to confront the workers violently, considering them to be counter-revolutionary forces manipulated from the outside. For the first time, the Bolshevik party participated in a homogeneous manner in the violent crushing of a part of the working class. And this took place at the very moment it was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Paris Commune and two years after Lenin at the founding Congress of the CI, had inscribed the slogan 'all power to the soviets' on the flag of the International. Although it was the Bolshevik party which concretely assumed the crushing of the Kronstadt uprising, the whole revolutionary movement of the time was mistaken about its nature. The Russian Workers' Opposition, like the parties that belonged to the International, denounced the rising clearly.

In response to this situation of growing discontent, and in order to encourage the peasants to produce more and bring their crops to market, it was decided in March 1921 to introduce the New Economic Policy (NEP), which, in reality, did not represent a "return" to capitalism since capitalism had never been abolished, but was merely an adaptation to the phenomenon of scarcity and to the laws of the market. At the same time, a trade agreement was signed between Russia and Britain.

With regard to this question of the state and the identification of the party with the state, there were divergences within the Bolshevik party. As we wrote in the International Review nos 8 and 9, the left communists in Russia had already rung the alarm and warned against the danger of a state capitalist regime. In 1918, the journal Kommunist had protested against the measures of discipline imposed on the workers. Even though, with the civil war, most of these criticisms were put on the back-burner, and the party closed ranks to face up to the aggression by the capitalist states, an opposition continued to develop against the growing weight of bureaucracy within the party. The Democratic Centralism group around Ossinski, founded in 1919 criticised the workers' loss of initiative and called for the reestablishment of democracy within the party, notably at the 9th Congress in the autumn of 1920, where it denounced the party's growing bureaucratisation.

Lenin himself, despite holding the highest state responsibilities, was the one who in many ways saw most clearly the danger that the new state could represent for the revolution. He was often the most determined in his arguments calling for the workers to defend themselves against this state.

Thus, in the debate on the union question, Lenin insisted on the fact that the unions had to serve in the defence of workers' interests, even against the "workers'" state which in fact suffered from severe bureaucratic deformations. This was clear proof that Lenin admitted that there could be a conflict of interest between the state and the working class. Trotsky, on the other hand, called for the total integration of the unions into the "workers" state. He wanted to complete the militarisation of labour, even after the end of the civil war. The Workers' Opposition group which appeared for the first time in March 1921, at the 10th Congress of the party, wanted production to be controlled by the industrial unions, themselves under the control of the soviet state.

Within the party, decisions were more and more transferred from party conferences to the Central Committee and the recently formed Politburo. The militarisation of society which the civil war had provoked had spread throughout the state to the very ranks of the party. Instead of pushing for the initiative of party members in the local committees, the party submitted the whole of its political activity to the strict control of the leadership, through the system of political "departments". This led to the decision, at the 10th Congress, to ban fractions in the party.

In the second part of this article, we will analyse the resistance of the communist left against this opportunist tendency and the way the International more and more became the instrument of the Russian state.


History of the workers' movement: