80 years ago - the Communist International

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80 years ago, in March 1919, the Communist International held its founding Congress in Moscow. The following article, originally published in WR 122, shows why this event was of immense importance for the international working class: faced with the outbreak of a massive, revolutionary challenge to capitalism all over the world, the CI was at to capitalism all over the world, the CI was at that moment the most advanced expression of the class movement, the crucible for synthesising the political programme needed to lead the movement to victory. Today, faced with the bourgeoisie's pernicious campaigns aimed at identifying communism with Stalinism and "proving" that marxist theory has been refuted by history, revolutionaries have the duty to affirm not only that they are the heirs of the CI, but also that its most central positions remain valid for the revolution of the future. The fact that the CI subsequently degenerated and succumbed to the Stalinist counter-revolution does not alter what it had been during the most heroic phase of the revolutionary wave that made the whole ruling class shake in its shoes.

"If we have been able to meet in spite of all the difficulties in our way... if we have been able, without any serious disagreements, to take important decisions on all the burning questions of the present revolutionary epoch, we owe it to the proletarian masses of the whole world, whose activity has put these questions of the agenda, and who have begun to resolve them practically".

These words of Lenin's are a graphic expression of the framework of the foundation of the Communist International: the break, by growing masses of proletarians, with th masses of proletarians, with the counter-revolution which after the definitive collapse of the 2nd International had made possible the unleashing of the imperialist massacre. The tragic patriotic euphoria of the first days of war was succeeded quickly enough by a growing revulsion in the face of the hideous reality of a war which pushed the barbarism of a now-senile capital to its paroxysm. The first great mutinies broke out in 1916, coinciding with the renewal of strikes on the home front, especially in Russia. Even if only a minority were involved as yet, even if the reaction seldom went beyond a simple "stop this bloody war", a breach was opened in the sordid holy alliance between the proletarians and their exploiters on the altar of the fatherland. At the same time, the few revolutionary forces who had refused to take part in the infamous betrayal of August 1914, when the workers' parties' colluded with imperialism, began to organise and regroup (Zimmerwald and Kienthal). Here again, although the movement only concerned a tiny minority, and although the Bolsheviks, followed by a few small groups of the German left, were the only ones to put forward a real alternative based on the slogan "transform the imperialist war into a civil war", the darkness which had fallen on the workers' movement began to clear. ovement began to clear. February 1917 was to be the first major crystallisation of this process, and October its high point as well as a gigantic springboard. Powerful strikes broke out in Italy, in Britain, in the United States; a little later the menace of proletarian insurrection loomed over Germany, the Republic of Workers' Councils was set up in Hungary, while in the colonies, as the CI noted: "the struggle is fought not solely under the banner of national liberation, but has already taken on an openly social character". The CI's formation is an integral part of the revolutionary wave which saw the workers break with their new guard-dog, the social democracy, gone over body and soul to the enemy class. The thrust of these struggles strengthened the communist minority; already in 1916, Lenin declared that it was impossible to reform the 2nd International, and at the same time that the formation of a new International was necessary. The same struggles pushed those who still hesitated to break from the old party to take the final step; they gave the little groups scattered around the world the strength to regroup under what was then the banner of the world proletarian revolution: Bolshevism. The tragically late formation of the CI (when the civil war had already been raging for a year) is a reflection of the proletariation of the proletariat's immaturity, and of revolutionaries' extreme difficulty in understanding the new period and its necessities. Only the regroupment of revolutionaries on a world level could allow this understanding to be deepened. This was the task that the 1st Congress undertook to accomplish. This is why it is a vital moment in the history of the proletarian struggle.

The communist programme in the epoch of capitalist decadence

The CI first and foremost defended the marxism that the 2nd International had betrayed and dragged in the dirt, by reaffirming the insoluble antagonism between proletariat and bourgeoisie, the absolute impossibility of a gradual and peaceful transition to socialism, and so the absolute necessity for the violent destruction of the bourgeois state; by raising aloft, against the nationalist gangrene that had eaten away the social democracy, the banner of proletarian internationalism: "The International will subordinate so-called national interests to the interests of the world revolution, and so will make the mutual aid of proletarians from different countries a reality". However, the cornerstone of this reaffirmation of marxism and its corollary, the denunciation of the social democratic parties as agents of the bourgeoisie in the working class movement, was the undes movement, was the understanding that a new epoch was born: "the epoch of the break-up of capitalism, of its internal collapse. The epoch of the communist revolution of the proletariat" (Platform of the CI, reprinted in International Review 94). The 1st Congress was imbued from start to finish with this feeling of living in a new era, with new needs and demands; some of its expressions may be spelled out as follows:

* first came the understanding that as capitalism floundered in the insurmountable contradictions of its own senility, it had changed, if not in its essence, at least in form. This is especially clear in Bukharin's report: "we must not only set out the general characteristics of the capitalist and imperialist system, we must also describe the system's process of disintegration and collapse...we must consider the capitalist system, not only in its abstract form, but also practically as world capitalism, and we must consider the latter as an economic totality." It is obvious that understanding capitalism as a world system which has invaded the whole planet determines the attitude that the proletariat adopts towards national liberation struggles, or towards temporary alliances with fractions of the bourgeoisie. Bukharin continued: "capitalism's primitive, dispersed form has almost disappeaersed form has almost disappeared. This process had already begun before the war, and has accelerated during the war. This war has been a great organiser. Under its pressure, finance capital has been transformed into a superior form: state capitalism." As Bukharin rightly noted, state capitalism, far from reducing capitalist anarchy, takes it to a higher level of direct confrontation between states. Here are the bases for understanding the particular form of decadent capitalism, of which the so-called 'socialist' countries are only one expression.

* the birth of a new epoch, the epoch of communist revolution, was also powerfully expressed on another fundamental point: the seizure of power and the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here, the experience of the class struggle itself provided the basis for this understanding. Until then, only the Paris Commune had provided a few precious but limited ideas on the crucial problem of how the proletariat is to exercise its dictatorship, while decades of parliamentary struggle had blurred these precious lessons: "The dictatorship of the proletariat had become all Greek to the labouring masses: now, thanks to the worldwide example of the Soviets, this 'Greek' has been translated into every modern language: the labouring masses have discovered the practical form of the dictactical form of the dictatorship...all this demonstrates that the revolutionary form of the dictatorship of the proletariat has been discovered, and that the proletariat is now capable of putting its domination into practice." (Lenin). Throughout the Congress, speakers insisted on the importance of the councils. The urgent need to make a radical break with the 2nd International and its left-wing variants was constantly linked to the councils, the organs of the revolutionary proletariat. Born on the revolutionary tide, the whole Congress was the highest expression of the unity between the class and its party; the relationship between the two was understood as a moving dialectical unity. This was the opposite of the mechanistic vision, where class and party are seen as two separate entities, of which only the party is dynamic. Despite confusions over the relationship between party and class and the role of the councils, which were to reappear rapidly as soon as the proletariat suffered its first serious defeats, the 1st Congress nonetheless tended to break from the schema of the bourgeois revolution, where a minority of the revolutionary class holds power in the name of the whole - a schema transposed to the proletarian revolution and reinforced by years of trade union and parliamentary struggles.

* finally, the understanding of the change in period, and the new proletarian practice that this would demand, made it possible at least to pose, if not to resolve, the trade union and parliamentary questions that were to occupy such a preponderant place between the 1st and 2nd Congresses. Wherever radical struggles took place, the unions were pushed aside by strike committees, embryonic forms of the workers' councils; generally, as in Germany and Britain, the unions openly opposed the revolutionary movement, while the most combative workers deserted them. However, the wide differences in experience, and the fact that the process of the unions' integration into the state was only at its beginnings, meant that the problem could not be answered clearly and globally. As for the parliamentary question, while all the delegates agreed in giving it a secondary importance, well behind mass action and open struggle, the possibility of making revolutionary use of parliament was still defended, in particular by the Bolsheviks. Nonetheless, here again the question was posed.

The living marxism of the Communist International

All this makes it clear that we cannot reduce the fundamental contribution of the CI's 1st Congress to a mere reappropriation of marxism: or rather, that we have to be clear as to what the reappropria to what the reappropriation of marxism really means. Marxism is above all the crystallisation of the living experience of the proletariat, and has nothing to do with a ready-cooked doctrine stored in a historical freezer, to be brought out when called for like a TV dinner. The CI took the past experience of the proletariat, crystallised in marxism, as a basis and integrated into it the elements brought by the new period. In doing so, the CI's 1st Congress simply recognised that the programme is the work of the proletariat as a whole, the expression of its whole historical experience, crystallised and synthesised by its revolutionary minorities. The great combats of the proletariat have always enriched its programme, including on its most fundamental points. In 1871 the proletariat, and with it Marx and Engels, understood that the bourgeois state could not be conquered but would have to be destroyed; in 1917, it understood the form that the proletarian dictatorship must take; the power of the workers' councils.

Born on the revolutionary tide, and of the necessity and possibility of the communist revolution, the CI's 1st Congress powerfully expressed the change in period and the problems that this change posed for the class as a whole. As such, the Congress is one of the greatest moments in the history of the workers' movemehistory of the workers' movement.

Today, any revolutionary programme must integrate the gains of the CI, and especially of its 1st Congress. However, it is not enough to be satisfied with the CI's positions as such. While the CI made it possible for the revolutionary movement to take a giant step forward, it was nonetheless placed at the watershed between two epochs of capitalism, and confronted too rapidly with the reflux of the proletarian movement to be able to draw out all the implications of its analyses, and also break completely with the old social democratic vision. Its immense merit was, by regrouping the forces of revolution, to have laid the basis for such a break; it was from these bases that the left fractions that were to emerge from the CI were to continue the questioning that it began, to systematise the theoretical, programmatic and organisational implications of the analyses worked out during the Congress. In this way, the star that Victor Serge spoke of will always shine brightly for proletarians throughout the world. RN.

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