Why the proletariat has not yet overthrown capitalism, Part 1

Printer-friendly version

We stand at the dawn of the 21st century. What will it bring humanity? Following the bourgeoisie's celebrations of the year 2000, we wrote in no.101 of our Review: "So ends the 20th century, the most tragic and barbaric in human history: in social decomposition. The bourgeoisie has celebrated the year 2000 in pomp: it is unlikely to do the same in 2100. Either it will have been overthrown by the proletariat, or humanity will have been destroyed or returned to the Stone Age". And so we stated clearly what is at stake: the 21st century's outcome depends entirely on the proletariat. Either it will make the revolution, or all civilisation, even humanity, will be destroyed. Despite all today's fine humanist speeches and euphoric declarations, the ruling classes will do nothing to prevent such an outcome. Not because they or their governments do not want to. The insurmountable contradictions of the capitalist system are driving society to its inevitable fate. For a decade, we have been inundated with daily campaigns on the "death of communism", or even of the working class. It is therefore necessary to reassert with all our strength that whatever difficulties the proletariat may encounter, there is no other force in society capable of resolving its contradictions. Because the proletariat was unable to fulfil its historic task of overthrowing capitalism, the 20th century foundered in barbarism. It will be unable to gather its strength to meet its responsibility in this century unless it is able to understand the reasons why it missed its appointment with history during the century that has just ended. This article proposes to make a modest contribution to that understanding.

Before we examine why the proletariat was unable to fulfil its historic task during the 20th century, we need to return to a question that revolutionaries themselves have not always expressed very clearly:

Is communist revolution inevitable?

The question is a fundamental one, for the working class' ability to fully measure its responsibility depends partly on the answer. A great revolutionary like Amadeo Bordiga[1] could declare, for example, that "The revolution is as inevitable as if it had already taken place". Nor is he alone in defending this idea, since it is to be found in certain writings of Marx, Engels, and other marxists that came after them.

For example, we find an assertion in the Communist Manifesto that encourages the idea that a proletarian victory is not inevitable: "oppressor and oppressed stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes"[2]. However, this observation is only applied to classes in the past. There is no doubt as to the outcome of the confrontation between proletariat and bourgeoisie: "The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the labourers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of Modern Industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, is its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable"[3].

In reality, revolutionaries' terminology has often confused the fact that the communist revolution is absolutely necessary, vital for humanity's salvation, with its inevitability.

More important of course is to show, as marxism has done from the outset:

- that capitalism is not a definitive mode of production, the "finally discovered form" of the organisation of production which could ensure ever-increasing wealth to all human beings;

- that at some point in its history, this system cannot help but plunge society into increasing convulsions, destroying the progress that it had itself created previously;

- that the communist revolution is vital to allow society to continue its march towards a real human community, where all human needs will be fully satisfied;

- that capitalist society has created within itself the objective conditions, and can create the subjective conditions, that make such a revolution possible: the material productive forces, a class able to overthrow bourgeois order and to lead society, and the consciousness that will allow this class to carry out its historic task.

However, the whole 20th century bears witness to the enormous difficulty of this task. In particular, it shows us that for the communist revolution, absolute necessity does not mean certainty, that the winning hand is not necessarily dealt in advance, that proletarian victory is not yet written down in the great book of history. Apart from the barbarity that overwhelmed the 20th century, the threat of nuclear war that hung over the planet for 40 years showed clearly that capitalism could very well destroy society. For the moment, this threat has faded with the disappearance of the great imperialist blocs, but the weapons that could put an end to the human species are still there, as are the antagonisms between states which could one day cause these weapons to be used.

Even at the end of the 19th century, Engels, co-author with Marx of the Communist Manifesto, had gone back on the idea of the inevitability of the revolution and the victory of the proletariat. Today, it is important for revolutionaries to say clearly to their class that there is no such thing as fate, that victory is not guaranteed in advance, and that what is at stake in the proletarian struggle is nothing less than the survival of humanity itself. Only if it is conscious of how much is at stake, will the working class find the determination to overthrow capitalism. Marx said that will is an expression of necessity. The proletariat's will to make the communist revolution will be all the greater, the greater in its eyes is the necessity of such a revolution.

Why is the communist revolution not inevitable?

"Bourgeois revolutions, like those of the 18th century, storm swiftly from success to success; their dramatic effects outdo each other; men and things seem set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy is the everyday spirit; but they are short-lived; soon they have attained their zenith, and a long crapulent depression lays hold of society before it learns soberly to assimilate the results of its storm-and-stress period. On the other hand, proletarian revolutions, like those of the 19th century, criticise themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin it afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them, recoil ever and anon from the indefinite prodigiousness of their own aims, until a situation has been created which makes all turning back impossible, and the conditions themselves cry out: ‘Hic Rhodus, hic salta! Here is Rhodes, jump here'"[4].

This well-known quotation from Marx's 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, written at the beginning of 1852 (in other words a few weeks after the coup d'etat of 2nd December 1851) aimed to account for the difficult and tortuous course of the proletarian revolution. Almost 70 years later, Rosa Luxemburg took up a similar idea in an article written on the eve of her assassination following the crushing of the Berlin insurrection of January 1919:

"This contradiction between the demands of the task and the inadequacy of the pre-conditions for its fulfilment in a nascent phase of the revolutionary development results in the individual struggles of the revolution ending formally in defeat. But the [proletarian] revolution is the sole form of ‘war' - and this is also its most vital law - in which the final victory can be prepared only by a series of ‘defeats'! (...) The revolutions have until now brought nothing but defeats, but these inevitable defeats virtually pile guarantee upon guarantee of the future success of the final goal.

To be sure, there is one condition! The question is, under which circumstances was each respective defeat incurred?"[5].

These quotations deal essentially with the painful course of the communist revolution, the series of defeats which mark its path until the final victory is achieved. But they allow us to highlight two essential ideas:

- the difference between the proletarian and the bourgeois revolutions;

- that a precondition for the proletariat's victory, which is not given in advance, is the class' ability to develop its consciousness by learning the lessons of its defeats.

It is precisely the difference between the proletarian and the bourgeois revolutions which allows us to understand why the victory of the working class cannot be considered as inevitable.

A specificity of bourgeois revolutions, in other words of the seizure of exclusive political power by the capitalist class, is that they are not the starting, but the finishing point of a whole process of economic transformation within society. An economic transformation during which the old, feudal, relations of production are progressively replaced by capitalist relations of production which serve as a basis for the bourgeoisie's conquest of political power:

"From the serfs of the Middle Ages sprang the chartered burghers of the earliest towns. From these burghesses the first elements of the bourgeoisie were developed.

The discovery of America, the rounding of the Cape, opened up fresh ground for the rising bourgeoisie. The East-Indian and Chinese markets, the colonisation of America, trade with the colonies, the increase in the means of exchange and in commodities generally, gave to commerce, to navigation, to industry, an impulse never before known, and thereby, to the revolutionary element in tottering feudal society, a rapid development.

The feudal system of industry, under which industrial production was monopolised by closed guilds, now no longer sufficed for the growing wants of the new markets. The manufacturing system took its place. The guild-masters were pushed on one side by the manufacturing middle class; division of labour between the different corporate guilds vanished in the face of the division of labour in each single workshop.

Meantime the markets kept ever growing, the demand ever rising. Even manufacture no longer sufficed. Thereupon, steam and industry revolutionised industrial production. The place of manufacture was taken by the giant, Modern Industry, the place of the industrial middle class by industrial millionaires, the leaders of whole industrial armies, the modern bourgeois (...)

We see, therefore, how the modern bourgeoisie is itself the product of a long course of development, of a series of revolutions in the modes of production and exchange.

Each step in the development of the bourgeoisie was accompanied by a corresponding political advance of that class. An oppressed class under the sway of the feudal nobility, an armed and self-governing association in the medieval commune; here, independent urban republic (as in Italy and Germany), there taxable ‘third estate' of the monarchy (as in France), afterwards in the period of manufacture proper, serving either the semi-feudal or the absolute monarchy as a counterpoise against the nobility, and, in fact, cornerstone of the great monarchies in general, the bourgeoisie has at last, since the establishment of Modern Industry and of the world market, conquered for itself, in the modern representative state, exclusive political sway"[6].

Very different is the process of the proletarian revolution. Whereas capitalist relations of production were able to develop progressively within feudal society, communist relations of production cannot develop within capitalist society, dominated by commodity relationships and ruled by the bourgeoisie. The idea of a progressive development of "islands of communism" belongs to utopian socialism, which marxism and the workers' movement have fought since the middle of the 19th century. The same is true for another variation on this idea: that of producers' or consumers' co-operatives, which have never, and will never be able to escape from the laws of capitalism, and which at best transform the workers into small capitalists, when it does not lead them to become their own exploiters. In reality, because it is the exploited class within the capitalist mode of production, deprived by definition of all the means of production, the working class does not and cannot possess any economic basis within capitalism for the conquest of political power. On the contrary, the first act in the communist transformation of society consists in the world wide seizure of political power by the entire proletariat organised in workers' councils, in other words in a deliberate and conscious action. This position of power, the proletarian dictatorship, is the starting point for the working class progressively and consciously to transform economic relationships, socialise the whole of production, abolish commodity exchange, and in particular the foremost among them, wage labour, so creating a classless society.

The bourgeois revolution, the seizure of exclusive political power by the capitalist class, was inevitable to the extent that it flowed from an economic process which was itself inevitable at a given moment in the life of feudal society, a process in which conscious human political will played little part. Depending on the particular circumstances of each country, it occurred earlier or later in different countries, and took different forms: the violent overthrow of the monarchical state as in France, or the bourgeoisie's progressive conquest of political positions within the state as was more the case in Germany. It ended up as a republic, as in the United States, or as constitutional monarchy, the first capitalist state, Britain, being the typical example. However, in all these cases the bourgeoisie's eventual political victory was guaranteed. And even when the bourgeoisie's revolutionary political forces suffered a setback (as was the case for example in France with the Restoration, or in Germany with the defeat of the 1848 revolution), this had but little effect on its forward march, economically or even politically.

Of course, the precondition for the success of the proletarian revolution is the existence of the material conditions for the communist transformation of society - conditions which are created by the development of capitalism itself.

The second precondition for the proletarian revolution is the open crisis of bourgeois society, clearly proving that capitalist relations of production must be replaced by others.

However, the presence of these material conditions does not necessarily mean that the proletariat will be able to make the revolution. Since it has no economic basis within capitalism, its only real strength apart from its numbers and organisation, is its ability to become clearly aware of its nature, of its struggle's ends and means. This is precisely the meaning of Rosa Luxemburg's words quoted above. And this ability of the proletariat to gain in awareness does not spring automatically from the material conditions it is confronted with, just as it is nowhere written that it will come to consciousness before capitalism plunges society into barbarism or destruction.

One of its means for avoiding, both for itself and for society as a whole, this outcome, is precisely to learn the lessons of its defeats, as Rosa Luxemburg reminds us. And in particular, it needs to understand why it proved unable to make its revolution during the 20th century.

Revolution and counter-revolution

It is typical of revolutionaries that they over-estimate the proletariat's potential at any given moment. Marx and Engels did not escape this tendency when they drew up the Communist Manifesto at the beginning of 1848; they thought that the proletarian revolution was imminent, and that the bourgeois revolution which was looming in Germany would be the stepping-stone for the proletariat to take power there. This tendency is readily explained by the fact that revolutionaries - by definition - aspire with all their heart to the overthrow of capitalism and the emancipation of their class, which often gives rise to a certain impatience. However, unlike those elements influenced by the ideology of the petty bourgeoisie, they are capable of quickly recognising the immaturity of the conditions for revolution. Politically, the petty bourgeoisie is par excellence a class which lives from day to day, since it has no political role to play. Immediatism and impatience ("revolution right now", as the rebellious students of the sixties used to demand) are characteristic of this social category, some of whose elements may join the struggle of the working class, but which rallies to the strongest side - ie the bourgeoisie - as soon as the wind turns. By contrast, proletarian revolutions, the expression of a historic class, are able to overcome their impatience and to harness themselves to the patient and difficult task of preparing the future struggles of the class.

This is why in 1852, Marx and Engels recognised that the conditions for revolution had not been ripe in 1848, and that capitalism had a long period of evolution to go through for them to become so. They considered it necessary to dissolve their organisation, the Communist League, which had been founded on the eve of the 1848 revolution, before it fell under the influence of impatient and adventurist elements (the Willich-Schapper tendency).

When they took part in the foundation of the International Workingmen's Association (IWA) in 1864, they thought once again that the hour for revolution had struck; but even before the Paris Commune in 1871, they had realised that the proletariat was still not ready, for capitalism still had before it the potential for massive economic development. Following the crushing of the Commune, which was a serious defeat for the whole European proletariat, they understood that the IWA in turn had ended its historic task, and that it was necessary to preserve it too from impatient and adventurist elements, and even from adventurers like Bakunin, represented essentially by the anarchists. This is why they both intervened at the 1872 Hague Congress (this in fact was the only Congress that both of them attended), to win the exclusion of Bakunin and his "Alliance for Socialist Democracy", just as they proposed, and defended the decision, to transfer the IWA's General Council from London to New York, far from the intrigues which a whole series of elements were setting in motion to lay hands on the International. In fact this decision came down to putting the IWA into abeyance, and it was finally dissolved at the Philadelphia conference in 1876.

Up to then, both revolutions - 1848 and the Commune of 1871 - had failed because the material conditions for proletarian victory did not exist. They were to blossom during the period that followed, as capitalism underwent the most powerful development in its history.

This period corresponded to a stage of great development in the workers' movement. It saw the creation of trade unions in most countries, and the foundation of the mass socialist parties, which in 1889 regrouped within the 2nd (Socialist) International.

In most West European countries, the organised workers' movement was getting under way. Although at first some governments persecuted the socialist parties (as was the case in Germany between 1878 and 1890, under the "anti-socialist laws"), this policy tended to be replaced by a more tolerant attitude. The socialist parties became a real power in society, to the point where in some countries they were the most powerful group in parliament and gave the impression that they would shortly hold an absolute majority there. The workers' movement seemed invincible. For many, the time was coming when it would be able to overthrow capitalism through the specifically bourgeois institution of parliamentary democracy.

Parallel with the rising strength of the workers' organisations, capitalism enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity, giving the impression that it had achieved the ability to overcome the cyclical crises which had affected it during the previous period. Within the socialist parties themselves, reformist tendencies developed, which thought that capitalism had succeeded in overcoming its economic contradictions and consequently that it was an illusion to think of overthrowing it by revolution. Theories like Bernstein's made their appearance, which considered that marxism should be "revised", in particular by abandoning its "catastrophist" vision of history. The proletariat's victory would be the result of a whole series of conquests won at the parliamentary or trade union level.

In reality these two antagonistic forces, capitalism and the workers' movement, whose power seemed to be developing in parallel, were being sapped from within.

For its part, capitalism was living its last hours of glory (which would leave their mark in the collective memory as "La Belle Époque"). Although on the economic level its prosperity seemed unassailed, especially in the emerging powers like Germany and the USA, the approach of its historic crisis could be felt in the rise of imperialism and militarism. As Marx had pointed out 50 years before, the colonial markets had played a fundamental role in capitalism's development. Every advanced capitalist country, even little countries like Holland and Belgium, had acquired a colonial empire as a source of raw materials and an outlet for their manufactured goods. But, by the end of the 19th century the whole non-capitalist world had been shared out among the old bourgeois nations. Henceforth, for any one of them to gain access to new outlets and new territories would mean conflict with its rivals. The first confrontation occurred between Britain and France, in September 1898 at Fashoda, where the two oldest colonial powers almost came to blows when the aims of the former (control of the upper Nile and colonisation on an east-west axis between Dakar and Djibouti) blocked the ambitions of the latter (to join up its empire from Cairo to Cape Town on a north-south axis). In the end, France gave way and the two rivals formed the "Entente Cordiale" against a third bandit, whose ambitions were as big as its colonial empire was small: Germany. German imperialism increasingly coveted the colonial possessions of the other powers, and this was to take shape a few years later, notably with the Agadir incident of 1911 where a German frigate put a spanner in the works of French ambitions in Morocco. The other aspect of Germany's colonial appetite was the formidable development of its navy, whose ambition was to compete with the British in the control of the seaways.

This was the other element in the fundamental change taking place in capitalism at the turn of the century: the proliferation of military tension and armed conflicts involving the European powers, the latter were also increasing both the size (for example the increase in French military service to three years) and strength of their armed forces.

The rise in militarism and imperialist tensions, as well as the great diplomatic manoeuvres among the major European nations, to strengthen their alliances in preparation for war, obviously attracted serious attention from the parties of the 2nd International. At its Stuttgart Congress in 1907, the International devoted an important resolution to the question, including an amendment proposed notably by Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg which stated that "Should war nonetheless break out, the socialists have the duty to work for it to end as rapidly as possible, and to use by every means the economic and political crisis provoked by the war to awaken the people and so to hasten the downfall of capitalist rule"[7].

In November 1912, the Socialist International even called an extraordinary conference (the Basle Congress) to denounce the threat of war and to call the proletariat to mobilise against it. This Congress' Manifesto warned the bourgeoisie: "The bourgeois governments should not forget that the Franco-German war gave birth to the revolutionary insurrection of the Commune and that the Russo-Japanese set the revolutionary forces in movement in Russia. In the eyes of the proletarians, it is criminal to shoot each other for the profit of capitalists, or the pride of dynasties, or the machinations of secret treaties".

In appearance then, the workers' movement was ready to confront capitalism should it unleash the barbarity of war. Indeed at the time, the idea was widespread among the European populations and not just in the working class, that the Socialist International was the only force in society able to prevent the outbreak of war. In reality, just as the capitalist system was sapped from within and on the point of revealing the extent of its historic bankruptcy, so the workers' movement itself, despite its apparent strength with its powerful trade unions and its "growing electoral successes", was seriously weakened and on the verge of a catastrophic collapse. Worse still, this apparent strength of the workers' movement was in fact its greatest weakness. The socialist parties' electoral success had given an unprecedented impetus to democratic and reformist illusions in the working masses. Similarly, the power of the union organisations, especially in Germany and Britain, had in reality been transformed into an instrument for the defence of bourgeois order and the enrolment of the workers for war and arms production[8].

At the beginning of the summer of 1914, after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo, tension grew in Europe and the spectre of war loomed rapidly larger. The workers' parties not only demonstrated their impotence but, for the most part, they also offered their support to their own national bourgeoisie. In France and Germany, there were even direct contacts between the socialist leaders and the government to discuss how to bring the workers into the war. And as soon as war broke out, these parties with one accord offered their full support to the bourgeois war effort, and succeeded in dragging the working masses into the slaughter. While the governments in power sang hymns to the "glory" of their respective nations, the socialist parties adopted arguments better adapted to their role of controlling the workers. This was not a war, they said in France, in the service of bourgeois interests, or to recover Alsace-Lorraine, but a war to protect "civilisation" against "German militarism". On the other side of the Rhine, it was not a war for German imperialism, but for "democracy and civilisation" against the "tyranny of the Tsarist knout". But though the words were different, the socialist leaders shared the same aim as the bourgeoisie: "National Unity" to send the workers to the slaughter and justify the state of siege, in other words military censorship, the ban on workers' strikes and demonstrations, and on publications or meetings to denounce the war.

The proletariat thus proved unable to prevent the outbreak of world war. It was a terrible defeat, but one which it suffered without an open struggle against the bourgeoisie. And yet, the struggle against the degeneration of the socialist parties, which had led to their betrayal in August 1914 and to the imperialist bloodbath that followed, had begun well beforehand, at the turn of the century. In the German party, Rosa Luxemburg had taken up the fight against Bernstein's revisionist theories, which provided a justification for reformism. Officially, the party rejected these theories; nonetheless, a few years later she had to take up the fight again, this time not only against the right but also against the centre, represented principally by Kautsky whose radical language in fact covered an abandonment of the revolutionary perspective. In Russia in 1903, the Bolsheviks entered the struggle against opportunism within the social-democratic party, first on questions of organisation then on the nature of the 1905 Russian revolution and the policy to be adopted within it. But these revolutionary currents within the Socialist International remained on the whole extremely weak, even though the congresses of the socialist parties and the International often adopted their positions.

When the moment of truth came, the socialist militants defending internationalist and revolutionary positions found themselves tragically isolated, to the point that when an international conference against the war was held in September 1915 in Zimmerwald in Switzerland, the delegates (including those from the centre, hesitating between the left and the right) could fit into four taxis, as Trotsky remarked. This terrible isolation did not prevent them from continuing the struggle, despite the repression that descended on them (in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the two main leaders of the internationalist "Spartakus" group, suffered imprisonment in gaol and military fortress).

The terrible trials of the war, the massacres, the hunger, the ferocious exploitation in the factories on the home front, began to undermine the workers who in 1914 had let themselves be sent so lightly to the slaughter. The speeches about "democracy" and "civilisation" wore thin in the face of the awful barbarism submerging Europe, and the repression of any attempt at workers' struggle. In February 1917, the Russian proletariat, with the revolutionary experience of 1905 behind it, rose against the war and hunger. It concretised in action the resolutions adopted by the Socialist International's Basle and Stuttgart congresses. Lenin and the Bolsheviks understood that the hour of revolution had struck, and they summed the workers of Russia not to be satisfied with the fall of Tsarism and the establishment of a "democratic" government. They had to prepare for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the seizure of power by the Soviets (the workers' councils) as a prelude to the world revolution. This is the perspective that became reality in Russia in 1917. Immediately, the new power called on the world proletariat to follow its example to put an end to the war and overthrow capitalism. We might say that the Bolsheviks, joined by the revolutionaries in other countries, summoned the world proletariat to a new appointment with history, after the one that it had missed in 1914.

In other countries the working class followed the Russian example, and especially in Germany, where one year later the uprising of workers and soldiers overthrew the imperial regime of Wilhelm II and forced the German bourgeoisie to call a halt to the war, putting an end to more than four years of a barbarity such as humanity had never seen before. But the bourgeoisie had already learnt the lessons of its defeat in Russia, where the Provisional Government set up after the revolution of February 1917 had proven unable to satisfy one of the workers' most essential demands: peace. Under the urging of its French and British allies, the government had kept Russia in the war, which rapidly disillusioned and radicalised both the working masses and the troops. The overthrow of the bourgeoisie, not just of Tsarism, appeared to them as the only way to put an end to the slaughter. In Germany by contrast, the bourgeoisie hurriedly put an end to the war during the first days of the revolution. It presented the overthrow of the imperial regime and the establishment of the republic as a decisive victory. It immediately called on the Socialist Party to take the reins of power, and the latter received the support of the congress of workers' councils, which were still dominated by the same socialists. Above all, the same government immediately requested an armistice from the allies of the Entente, which was granted without delay. Moreover, the Entente powers did everything to help the German government confront the working class. France rapidly returned to Germany 16,000 machine-guns which it had seized as war booty, and which were to prove useful later to crush the working class.

In January 1919, the German bourgeoisie, with the Socialist Party at its head, dealt a terrible blow to the proletariat. It knowingly organised a provocation, which led to a premature insurrection by the Berlin workers. The revolution was drowned in blood, and the main revolutionary leaders (Karl Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, and Leo Jogisches) were assassinated. Nonetheless, the German workers were still not definitively crushed. Their attempts at revolution continued until 1923[9]. Their efforts were defeated, as were other powerful class movements that took place in other countries during the same period (notably Hungary and Italy in 1919)[10].

In fact, the defeat of the proletariat in Germany meant the defeat of the world revolution; although another last rising did take place in China in 1927, it too was drowned in blood.

At the same time as the revolutionary wave was developing in Europe, the Communist, or Third, International (CI) was founded in Moscow in March 1919, regrouping revolutionaries from all over the world. Only two large communist parties existed at its foundation, in Russia and in Germany; the latter was formed a few days before the defeat of January 1919. This International encouraged the creation in every country of communist parties that rejected the chauvinism, reformism, and opportunism which had engulfed the Socialist parties. The communist parties were intended to be the leadership of the world revolution, but they were formed too late due to the prevailing historic conditions in which they were formed. When the International was really founded, in other words at its 2nd Congress in 1920, the high point of the revolutionary wave had already passed, and capitalism had shown itself capable of taking the situation in hand, both economically and politically. Above all, the ruling class had succeeded in breaking the impetus of revolution by putting an end to its main fuel, the imperialist war. With the defeat of the world wide revolutionary wave, the parties of the Communist International which had been formed against the degeneration and betrayal of the Socialist parties, were unable to escape their own degeneration.

Several factors underlay this degeneration. The first is that the Communist parties accepted into their ranks a whole series of "centrist" elements who had left their Socialist parties and adopted a revolutionary phraseology in order to profit from the world proletariat's immense enthusiasm for the Russian revolution. Another factor, still more decisive, was the degeneration of the International's biggest party, the Bolsheviks who had led the October revolution and been the principal protagonists of the International's creation. The Bolshevik party was progressively absorbed by the state it headed; because of the revolution's isolation, it became increasingly a defender of Russian interests, to the detriment of its role as a bastion of the world revolution. Moreover, since there can be no "socialism in one country" and because capitalism can only be abolished on a world scale, the Russian state was gradually transformed into a defender of Russian national capital, a capital whose bourgeoisie was to be formed essentially by the state and therefore the party bureaucracy. From being a revolutionary organisation, the Bolshevik party was thus bit by bit transformed into a bourgeois and counter-revolutionary party, despite the resistance of many real communists, like Trotsky, who intended to keep the flag of world revolution flying. In 1925, despite Trotsky's opposition, the Bolshevik party adopted the programme of the "construction of socialism in one country", a programme promoted by Stalin and a real betrayal of proletarian internationalism, which in 1928 he imposed on the Communist International, thus signing its death warrant.

Thereafter, despite the resistance of a whole series of left fractions, excluded one after the other, the communist parties passed into the service of their respective national capitals. From being spearheads of the world revolution, the Communist parties had become spearheads of counter-revolution: the most terrible counter-revolution in history.

Not only had the working class missed its second appointment with history, it was to plunge into the most terrible period it had ever known. As Victor Serge wrote, it was "midnight in the century". In Russia, the communist party had become both the exploiting class, and the instrument of an unprecedented repression against the worker and peasant masses. Outside Russia, the communist parties played their counter-revolutionary role by preparing the proletariat's enrolment in World War II, in other words the bourgeoisie's response to capitalism's return to open crisis after 1929.

This open crisis and the terrible misery that battened on the working masses during the 1930s, could have been a powerful factor in radicalising the world proletariat, and developing its consciousness that capitalism had to be overthrown. But the proletariat was to miss this third appointment with history.

The situation of the working class in Germany, the most concentrated and experienced in the world, in a key country for the revolution, was similar to that in Russia. As in Russia, the working class had launched a revolution, and its defeat was therefore all the more terrible. The German revolution was not crushed by the Nazis, but by the "democratic" parties, and with the Socialists first among them. Precisely because the proletariat had suffered this defeat, the Nazis (who at the time corresponded best to the economic and political requirements of the German bourgeoisie) were able to complete the work of the left. Their terror annihilated any attempt at proletarian struggle, and essentially by the same means enrolled the workers in the war.

In the countries of Western Europe, where the proletariat had not mounted a revolution, and so had not been crushed physically, terror was not the method best adapted to take the workers into war. The bourgeoisie had to use mystifications similar to those used for World War I in 1914. Here, the Stalinist parties played their bourgeois part in exemplary fashion. In the name of the defence of "democracy" and the "socialist fatherland" against fascism, these parties systematically diverted the workers' struggles into dead-ends, wearing down the proletariat's morale and combativity.

This morale had already been profoundly shaken by the failure of the world revolution during the 1920s. After a period of enthusiasm for the idea of a communist revolution, many workers had turned away from any revolutionary perspective. One factor in their demoralisation was the realisation that the society created in Russia was not the paradise that the Stalinists claimed, and this made it easier for the Socialist parties to bring them back into the fold. Most of those who still wanted to believe in the possibility of revolution fell into the coils of the Stalinist parties, and the idea that the revolution's victory depended on the "defence of the socialist fatherland" and victory over fascism in Italy and Germany.

A key moment in this derailment of the world proletariat was the war in Spain, which far from being a revolution, was in fact a part of the military, diplomatic, and political preparation for World War II.

All over the world, workers wanted to show their solidarity for their class brothers in Spain, who had risen spontaneously against the fascist putsch of 18th July 1936. This was channelled into recruitment for the International Brigades (mostly officered by Stalinists), into the demand for "arms for Spain" (in reality for the bourgeois Popular Front government), and into anti-fascist demonstrations which in fact prepared the enrolment of workers in the "democratic" countries into war against Germany.

On the eve of World War I, the supposed strength of the proletariat (the powerful unions and workers' parties) had turned out to be its greatest weakness. The same scenario was played out in World War II, though the actors were somewhat different. The great strength of the "workers' parties" (the Stalinist and socialist parties, united in the anti-fascist alliance), the great "victories" against fascism in Western Europe, the supposed "socialist fatherland", were all marks of the counter-revolution, of an unprecedented proletarian weakness. A weakness that would deliver it up, bound hand and foot, to the second imperialist massacre.

The proletariat confronted with World War II

The horror of the First World War was nothing compared to the Second. Capitalism plunged into its decadence, and into a new barbarity. But whereas in 1917 and 1918, the proletariat had brought the war to an end, this was not to happen in 1945. The war continued until one imperialist camp completely crushed the other. Not that a proletarian response was completely lacking during the slaughter. During 1943, a vast strike movement developed in the industrial north of Mussolini's Italy, while during 1944 and 1945 several German cities saw movements of revolt against hunger and the war. But nothing during the Second World War was comparable to the revolts that had taken place against the First. There were several reasons for this. Firstly, because the bourgeoisie had learnt the lessons of World War I, and had taken care to crush the proletariat both physically and above all ideologically. An expression of this difference was the fact that, whereas the Socialist parties betrayed the class at the very outset of World War I, the Communist parties had betrayed well before the outbreak of the Second. As a result, the latter did not contain the least revolutionary current, whereas during the first war most of the militants who were to form the Communist parties were already socialist militants. In the terrible counter-revolution of the 1930s, the militants who continued to defend communist positions were a mere handful, and deprived of any direct link with a working class completely subjected to bourgeois ideology. It was impossible for them to develop any work within the parties that influenced the working class, as revolutionaries had been able to do during World War I, not only because they had been expelled from the party, but because the party itself no longer contained the slightest spark of proletarian life. Those, like Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, who had stood firm on revolutionary positions during the first war had encountered a growing echo for their propaganda among the militants of the social-democracy, the more war destroyed their illusions. Nothing like this was possible in the Communist parties. By the 1930s, they had become a completely sterile ground for the growth of any revolutionary or internationalist thinking. During the second war, the working class had fallen completely into the trap of anti-fascist ideology, and the impact of the tiny revolutionary groups, which continued to defend internationalist principles remained utterly insignificant.

The other reason for the absence of the slightest proletarian upsurge during the second imperialist war is that the world bourgeoisie, after the experience of World War I, took care to prevent systematically any rising in the defeated countries, where the bourgeoisie was at its most vulnerable. In Italy for example, the ruling class overcame the rising of 1943 by a division of labour between the German army, which occupied northern Italy and restored Mussolini to power, while the Allies landed in the south. In the north, German troops restored order with such brutality that the workers who had been most visible in the movements of early 1943 were forced to take refuge in the countryside, where they were cut off from the class base, and fell easy prey to the ideology of anti-fascism and "national liberation". At the same time, the Allies halted their northward advance, leaving Italy to "stew in its own juice" (to use Churchill's words), leaving Germany to do the dirty work of repression and allowing the democratic forces, and the Stalinist party in particular, to gain an ideological control over the working class.

The same tactics were used in Poland, where Stalin kept the Red Army immobile a few kilometres outside Warsaw when the insurrection broke out. The German army drowned the rising in blood, and flattened the city. When the Red Army entered Warsaw a few months later, the workers were massacred and disarmed.

In Germany itself, the Allies took care to crush any attempt at a workers' rising by an abominable bombing campaign against working class districts (the bombing of Dresden, from 13th to 14th February 1945, caused 250,000 deaths, three times more than Hiroshima). The Allies refused all the armistice proposals from different fractions of the German bourgeoisie, and from famous military men such as Marshal Rommel and Admiral Canaris, head of the secret service. For the victors, there could be no question of leaving Germany in the hands of the German bourgeoisie alone, not even its anti-Nazi fractions. Bourgeois politicians still remembered the experience of 1918, when the government that had taken over from the imperial regime had had the greatest difficulty in re-establishing order. The victors thus decided to administer a defeated Germany directly, and to establish a military occupation of every inch of German territory. The German proletariat, the giant which from 1918 to 1923 had shaken the whole capitalist world, was now prostrate, shattered, reduced to wandering the ruins in search of its dead, or a few familiar objects, subject to the goodwill of its conquerors to eat. In the victorious countries of the European continent, many workers had joined the Resistance with the illusion - encouraged by the Stalinist parties - that the armed struggle against Nazism would be the prelude to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. The reality was to be very different. In the countries which came under the domination of the USSR, the workers were led to support the creation of Stalinist regimes (for example during the Prague coup of 1948) which, once consolidated, hastened to disarm the workers and to exercise the most brutal terror over them. In countries dominated by the USA, such as France and Italy, the Stalinist parties took part in government, and called on the workers to give up their weapons, since the task in hand was not revolution, but "national reconstruction".

And so, throughout a Europe in ruins, hundreds of millions of proletarians suffered conditions of life and exploitation even worse than during World War I; famine roamed, capitalism wallowed in barbarism. The working class was unable to find the strength to engage a struggle of any importance against capitalist rule. World War I had won millions of workers to internationalism. World War II left them in the depths of the most abject chauvinism.

The proletariat had reached rock bottom. What it was told, what it thought, was its greatest victory - the triumph of democracy over fascism - was in fact its most utter historic defeat. Capitalist order was guaranteed by the workers' euphoric belief in their "victory", and their resulting belief in the "sacred virtues" of bourgeois democracy: the same democracy which had led them twice into imperialist butchery and crushed their revolution in 1920. And during the reconstruction period, the post-war economic boom, and the temporary improvement in the workers' living conditions, left them unable to appreciate the real defeat that they had suffered.

Once again, the working class had missed its appointment with history. But not this time because it had arrived too late or ill-prepared: this time, it was completely absent from the stage of history.

In the second part of this article, we will see how the proletariat has managed to return to the scene, but also what a long road it has still to travel.


[1] For a presentation of Bordiga's ideas, see our polemic with the IBRP in this issue.

[2] Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, 1970.

[3] Ibid. This sentence from the Manifesto also serves as a conclusion to Book 1 of Capital, the only one to be published in Marx's lifetime.

[4] 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: the expression at the end of the quotation is a reference to one of Aesop's fables, where a man boasted of a tremendous leap he had once made on the island of Rhodes; unimpressed, an onlooker answered: "Here is Rhodes, jump here".

[5] Order reigns in Berlin, in Selected Political Writings, Jonathan Cape, 1972, page 304-305.

[6] The Communist Manifesto, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Lawrence and Wishart, 1970.

[7] The passage is quoted in the "Resolution on the position towards the socialist currents and the Bern conference" of the 1st Congress of the Communist International.

[8] Rosa Luxemburg expressed this clearly when she wrote: "In Germany, for four decades we had nothing but ‘victories' on the parliamentary level; we flew literally from one victory to the next. And what was the result of the great historic test of 4th August 1914? A crushing moral and political defeat, an incredible collapse, an unprecedented bankruptcy".

[9] See our series of articles on the German revolution in the International Review, between nos.81 and 99.

[10] See our article on the first revolutionary wave in International Review no.80.

General and theoretical questions: