The communist programme in the revolutions of 1917-1923

In 1917, communism was no longer a distant goal which could only be explored in theory on the basis of partial experiences like the Paris Commune. Suddenly, the question of what communism means and how to get there became urgent and immediate. In this section, we chart the answers - necessarily partial, given the circumstances - proposed by the revolutionaries of the day.

The Russian Revolution and the Italian Left 1933-46

The "communist left" is to a very large extent the product of those sections of the world proletariat who posed the greatest threat to capitalism during the international revolutionary wave that followed the 1914-18 war: the Russian, the German, and the Italian. It was these "national" sections which made the most telling contribution to the enrichment of marxism in the context of the new epoch of capitalist decline inaugurated by the war. But those who rose the highest also fell the lowest. We saw in previous articles in this series how the left currents of the Bolshevik party, after their first heroic attempts to understand and to resist the onset of the Stalinist counter-revolution, were almost completely wiped out by the latter, leaving the left groupings outside Russia to carry on the work of analysing what had gone wrong with the revolution in Russia and of defining the nature of the regime which had usurped its name. Here again, the German and Italian fractions of the communist left played an absolutely key role, even if they were not unique (the previous article in this series, for example, looked at the emergence of a left communist current in France in the 1920s-30s, and its contribution to understanding the Russian question). But while the proletariat in both Italy and Germany had suffered important defeats, the proletariat in Germany - which had effectively held the fate of the world revolution in its hands in 1918-19 - had certainly been crushed more brutally and bloodily by the interlocking efforts of social democracy, Stalinism and Nazism. It was this tragic fact, together with certain vital theoretical and organisational weaknesses that went back to the revolutionary wave and even before, which contributed to a process of dissolution hardly less devastating than that which had befallen the communist movement in Russia.

1920: The Programme of the KAPD

With the publication of the 1920 programme of the Communist Workers Party of Germany (KAPD), we complete the section of this series devoted to the communist party programmes which came out during to the communist party programmes which came out during the height of the revolutionary wave (see International Review no.93, the 1918 programme of the KPD; International Review no.94, the platform of the Communist International; International Review no.95, the programme of the Russian Communist Party).

Trotsky and the culture of communism

The following extracts, which are accompanied by our own comments, are taken from the final chapter of Literature and Revolution, where Trotsky outlines his vision of art and culture in the developed communist society of the future. Having rejected the notion of ‘proletarian culture’ in previous chapters, Trotsky permits himself a glimpse of the truly human culture of classless society; it is a glimpse which takes us far beyond the particular question of art to the prospect of a transfigured humanity.

Leon Trotsky: What is proletarian culture and is it possible?

Every ruling class creates its own culture, and consequently, its own art. History has known the slave-owning cultures of the East and of classic antiquity, the feudal culture of medieval Europe and the bourgeois culture which now rules the world. It would follow from this that the proletariat has also to create its own culture and its own art.

Unravelling the Russian enigma: 1926-36

Understanding the nature of the Stalinist system is a key aspect of the communist programme: without such an understanding, it would be impossible for communists to outline clearly what kind of society they are fighting for, to describe what socialism is and what it is not. But the clarity that communists have today about the nature of the USSR was not easily attained...

1921: the proletariat and the transitional state

The seizure of power in Russia inevitably posed enormous new problems for the new proletarian power, and generated heated debates within the Bolshevik party on the transitional state. The tragedy of Russia's encirclement culminated in 1921 with the Kronstadt revolt, a veritable catastrophe which saw the revolutionary government gunning down those who had been its most stalwart supporters.

1918: the revolution criticises its errors

Marxism is first and foremost a critical method, since it is the product of a class which can only emancipate itself through the ruthless criticism of all existing conditions. A revolutionary organisation that fails to criticise its errors, to learn from its mistakes, inevitably exposes itself to the conservative and reactionary influences of the dominant ideology. And this is all the more true at a time of revolution, which by its very nature has to break new ground, enter an unknown landscape with little more than a compass of general principles to find its way. As we shall see, one of the consequences of the Bolshevik party identifying itself with the Soviet state was that it increasingly lost this capacity to criticise itself and the general course of the revolution. But as long as it remained a proletarian party it continuously generated minorities who did continue to carry out this task.

The Platform of the Communist International

In parallel with our series 'Communism is not a nice idea, it is on the agenda of history', we are publishing a number of classic documents of the revolutionary movement of the 20th century relating to the means and goals of the proletarian revolution. We begin with the platform of the Communist International adopted by its founding Congress in March 1919 as the basis for adherence of all genuine revolutionary groups and currents to the new world party.

1918: The programme of the German Communist Party

The ruling class cannot entirely bury the memory of the October 1917 revolution in Russia, where for the first time in history an exploited class took power at the level of an entire and immense country, Instead, as we have shown on numerous occasions in this International Review, it uses all the considerable means at its disposal to distort the meaning of this epochal event by conjuring up a great fog of lies and slanders. It is rather different with the German revolution of 1918-23. Here it has applied the policy of the historical blackout.

Lenin's State and Revolution: Striking Validation of Marxism

Given the ruling class’ frequent depiction of Lenin as a power-hungry dictator, it is all the more ironic that during the period from April to October his "socialist" adversaries accused him of anarchism. State and Revolution is Lenin’s answer, a profound reflection from a marxist standpoint on the nature of power in the revolution. Lenin began researching the book in 1916, and brought it to fruition in June 1917. In this work, we see the fertile encounter of marxist theory and the real practical experience of the workers’ soviets in Russia, first in 1905 then in 1917.

1905: the mass strike opens the door to the proletarian revolution

From the beginning of the first series of these articles, we argued against the cliché that 'communism is a nice idea, but it could never work' by affirming, with Marx, that communism is not at all reducible to a 'nice idea', but is organically contained in the class struggle of the proletariat. Communism is not an abstract utopia dreamed up by a few well-intentioned visionaries; it is a movement given birth by the very conditions of present day society. And yet, that first series was very much a study of the 'ideas' of communists during the ascendant period of capitalism - an examination of how their conception of the future society and the way to achieve it developed during the course of the 19th century, before the communist revolution was on the immediate historical agenda.

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