The Russian Revolution and the Rise of Stalinism
The Russian Revolution of October 1917 stands out as the greatest event in history. The seizure of power by the working class, the overthrow of capitalism, and the creation of the first workers’ state changed the entire international situation, and its repercussions continue to reverberate around the world.
This victory did not arise by chance. On the one hand it was the product of social conditions which prepared the way for social revolution; on the other hand it was the product of immense struggle, persistence and sacrifice on the part of the Russian working class, with a clear and conscious Marxist leadership.
The victory of the Russian Revolution was prepared by the whole process of development of the international working-class movement. Under capitalism, the workers have always been forced to struggle constantly for their daily bread. In the course of this struggle, they become organised, conscious of their strength, begin to understand the real nature of their enemy, and grope their way towards the task of changing society.
The ideas of Marxism belong naturally to the workers’ movement. They are not imported into the workers’ movement from outside, as the brain-child of intellectuals, but represent the scientific generalisation of the international experience of the working class.
Marx and Engels, it is true, like most of the renowned teachers of Marxism in the past, came from social backgrounds outside the working class, from the petty-bourgeois or even the bourgeois intelligentsia. In the conditions of Europe in the nineteenth century this had given them the advantage of access to education and a profound knowledge of then existing philosophical, historical and economic thinking.
But they broke with their social backgrounds completely, and placed their enormous talents totally at the disposal of the workers’ movement. It was as active fighters and participants in the workers’ struggle that they drew the clear conclusions of scientific socialism and formulated the ideas which today we understand as the fundamentals of Marxism.
From the beginning, the first Marxist organisation (the Communist League, 1847-1853) was a workers’ organisation. Immersed in the rising labour movement of the day, it fought to clear away the influences of old bourgeois, reactionary and utopian ideas.
When the International Workingmen’s Association (the First International) was formed in 1864, Marxism already enjoyed enormous authority among its members, and soon established pre-eminence. The great historical significance of the First International is not only that it raised the banner of Marxism at the head of the workers’ movement, but also that it asserted the organisational independence of the working class from all bourgeois and petty bourgeois parties.
In the mid-19th century, Europe was still in the turmoil brought about by the rise of capitalism and the as yet uncompleted struggle to clear away the remnants of the feudal order.
Marx and Engels pointed out that, in the bourgeois revolutions that overthrew the aristocracy and absolute monarchy, the uprisings of the poor were used as a battering-ram. But invariably the bourgeoisie, once it had achieved political power through the struggle of the working masses, turned to crush their movement—often aided by sections of the reactionary classes which it had just defeated—in order to maintain its domination over society.
The proletariat, still in its infancy as a collective force, could serve as no more than a basis for the radical wing of the bourgeois democrats—as long as it lacked independent political organisation and leadership of its own.
Thus in the revolutions of 1848-1850 which swept across Europe, Marx and Engels campaigned tirelessly for the independent programme of the workers’ movement, linking together the completion of the democratic tasks with the struggle to overthrow capitalism.
In the German revolution of that time, as Marx explained, the bourgeoisie “saw itself threateningly confronted by the proletariat, and all those sections of the urban population related to the proletariat in interest and ideas, at the very moment of its own threatening confrontation with feudalism and absolutism”. Therefore the bourgeoisie sought compromise with the feudal landlords and the monarchy, to avert a revolution from below. It thus passed quickly into the camp of counter-revolution.
Still on the side of revolution were the radical democrats of the petty bourgeoisie. But Marx and Engels insisted that on no account should the working class dissolve its own organisation or limit its demands to those of the petty-bourgeois democratic party. Their Address to the Communist League in 1850 demonstrates the revolutionary method of Marxism and rings out across the decades to our own time:
“The relationship of the revolutionary workers’ party to the petty-bourgeois democrats is this: it cooperates with them against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.
The democratic petty bourgeois, far from wanting to transform the whole of society in the interests of the revolutionary proletarians, only aspire to a change in social conditions which will make the existing society as tolerable and comfortable for themselves as possible… In order to achieve all this they require a democratic form of government, either constitutional or republican, which would give them and their peasant allies the majority….
As far as the workers are concerned one thing, above all, is definite: they are to remain wage labourers as before. However, the democratic petty bourgeois want better wages and security for the workers, and hope to achieve this by an extension of state employment and by welfare measures; in short, they hope to bribe the workers with a more or less disguised form of alms and to break their revolutionary strength by temporarily rendering their situation tolerable….
But these demands (the demands of the petty-bourgeois democracy) can in no way satisfy the party of the proletariat. While the democratic petty bourgeois want to bring the revolution to an end as quickly as possible, achieving at most the aims already mentioned, it is our interest and our task to make the revolution permanent until all the more or less propertied classes have been driven from their ruling positions, until the proletariat has conquered state power and until the association of the proletarians has progressed sufficiently far—not only in one country but in all the leading countries of the world—that competition between the proletarians of these countries ceases and at least the decisive forces of production are concentrated in the hands of the workers. Our concern cannot be simply to modify private property, but to abolish it, not to hush up class antagonisms but to abolish classes, not to improve the existing society but to found a new one….
At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organisation in which general social-democratic phrases prevail, while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented. Such a unity would be to their advantage alone and to the complete disadvantage of the proletariat. The proletariat would lose all its hard-won independent positions and be reduced once more to a mere appendage of official bourgeois democracy. This unity must therefore be resisted in the most decisive manner.
Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organisation of the workers’ party, both secret and open, alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes (branches) a centre and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence….
In the event of a struggle, against a common enemy a special alliance is unnecessary. As soon as such an enemy has to be fought directly, the interests of both parties will coincide for the moment and an association of momentary expedience will arise spontaneously in the future, as it has in the past.
It goes without saying that in the bloody conflicts to come, as in all others, it will be the workers, with their courage, resolution and self-sacrifice, who will be chiefly responsible for achieving victory. As in the past, so in the coming struggle also, the petty bourgeoisie, to a man, will hesitate as long as possible and remain fearful, irresolute and inactive; but when victory is certain it will claim it for itself and will call upon the workers to behave in an orderly fashion, to return to work and to prevent so-called excesses, and it will exclude the proletariat from the fruits of victory.”
Thus the founders of Marxism asserted the independence of the proletariat, and the need to develop the workers’ revolutionary struggle to the full extent of its potential.
Exactly the same method guided Lenin and Trotsky in the Russian Revolution of 1917, as we shall see in a moment. The defeat of the revolutions of 1848-1851, combined with an upsurge of the capitalist economy, provided an opportunity for the capitalist class to consolidate its position. But if new revolutionary explosions were thus postponed for a time, the mole of revolution was nevertheless burrowing away beneath the surface.
The growing strength of the working class found expression in the spread of the workers’ organisations throughout Europe. This in turn was reflected in the establishment of the First International.
In 1871, against the background of war between Prussia and France, the Paris proletariat rose and took power. Tragically, it was unable to hold on to that power, The Paris Commune was drowned in blood by the forces of the French bourgeoisie—supported by its erstwhile Prussian enemy.
The crushing of its most advanced section was a shattering blow for the working class internationally. A savage wave of reaction set in against the workers’ movement throughout Europe. Politically, the way was cleared for a new cycle of expansion of capitalist production.
In turn, the organisations of the workers were weakened by the pressures of reaction. Within the First International itself, this enabled middle-class radicals and pre-Marxist, utopian, and reformist ideas to assert themselves.
Seeing no prospect of a new revolutionary wave for some years, and in order to preserve the revolutionary heritage of the First International for the working-class movement in the future, Marx and Engels supported the dissolution of the International’s structure in 1876.
Thus the political authority of the First International survived undimmed in the proletarian movement. Marxism had been established, beyond question, as the theory and method of the revolutionary working-class vanguard internationally.
But the new period of capitalist expansion which opened in the 1870s, continued (despite periodic slumps) for forty years. It marked the beginning of the epoch of imperialism, in which production and trade expanded beyond the nation-states of Europe, and the European powers engaged in a new thrust of colonial conquest that drew tens of millions of people in Africa and Asia into the capitalist maelstrom.
Through expanding production and imperialist plunder, the capitalists reinforced the pillars of their rule in Europe. The expansion of production brought with it the massive growth of the industrial working class. This period saw for the first time the growth of stable trade unions, and political parties embracing masses of workers in their ranks (which were then generally called social-democratic parties).
In 1889 the workers’ parties of Europe combined to form the Second International. So decisively had the authority of Marxism been established at this stage that, from the start, the leadership of the Second International proclaimed the ideas of Marxism in most of its policy statements. But there is a world of difference between subscribing to ideas and actually carrying them into practice.
A whole generation of working-class militants struggled within the Second International and attempted to build its national sections into parties of the workers’ revolution. Yet processes were under way that would transform virtually the entire leadership of the International, within the space of 25 years, into the bitter enemies of Marxism and the proletarian revolution.
The rise of imperialism and the vast growth of production in the major capitalist countries laid the basis for the reformist degeneration of the working-class leadership in these countries. As the workers’ movement recovered from its wounds and once again built up its strength, the ruling class could, for a time, afford to grant it concessions. They could permit the development of a layer of skilled and relatively well-paid workers, privileged above the mass of the working population.
This ‘aristocracy of labour’ did not experience acutely the need to struggle for social change. In time this layer provided a basis of support for the reformist element crystallising within the leadership of the workers’ organisations.
In the parties of the Second International and the mass trade unions of Europe, a bureaucracy of officialdom came into existence that built up a secure and privileged position for itself. Once workers’ leaders were drawn into the bureaucracy, they tended to lose touch with the daily conditions of the class. Because of the sustained upswing of capitalism, reformist leaders were able to ride out the pressures exerted from below.
Elevated above the rank and file, many of the leaders became corrupted by the insidious pressures of the ruling class. Within the bureaucracy, independent class struggle gradually gave way to policies of compromise with capitalism.
At the same time, individuals from outside the working class began to seek careers in the workers’ movement. Intellectuals and educated middle-class elements moved easily into positions of influence as editors, chairmen and members of parliament. Their crime lay not in their class background, but in their failure to break decisively with this background—in their importing of middle-class conservatism and elitism into the ranks of the workers’ movement.
Resting on the most passive and conservative sections of the organised workers, appealing to the prejudices remaining among the most backward layers of the working class, the social-democratic bureaucracy developed increasingly as an obstacle to the struggle for socialism. Its ideologists, spear-headed by Eduard Bernstein (at one time a trusted comrade of Engels) seized on the illusions of the privileged aristocracy of labour and transformed these into a theory of reformism in open opposition to the teachings of Marxism.
They claimed that the workers’ demands could be met through gradual concessions by the capitalist class; that the matter of the workers’ exploitation could be resolved through peaceful compromise between exploiters and exploited; that socialism could be implemented gradually, step by step, without the need to overthrow the capitalist class. The strength of these illusions rested on the character of the period through which capitalism was passing.
But again reality had its other side. Throughout this period the working class was accumulating enormous strength, and building powerful mass organisations, of the unskilled workers as well. Parliamentary rights, press freedom, etc., were being won. Such was the changing balance of class forces at the base of society, that the theoretical possibility opened up of the workers taking power and carrying through the expropriation of the capitalists without the latter having the means to resist.
But paradoxically, reformism—which aims at compromise with the capitalists and their state—itself guarantees a violent conflict. Because the reformists hold the workers’ movement back from the complete transformation of society and dismantling of the capitalist state when conditions allow, they open the way for a murderous armed resistance by the capitalist class.
That, however, is not the only way in which reformism has proved fatal to the working class. In the case of the Second International, the full bankruptcy of reformism was revealed with the outbreak of the imperialist First World War in August 1914.
In a shameful betrayal of the workers’ international struggle, the reformist leaders of the social-democratic parties in all capitalist countries threw themselves, as one man, behind the war effort of their ‘own’ imperialist bourgeoisie. Thus workers were urged into uniform, and drummed into action by their own leaders—to massacre their fellow workers of other nations.
At the outset of the First World War, the forces of genuine Marxism were reduced to insignificant numbers. As Lenin remarked in 1915, the conscious internationalists left from the Second International could be fitted into four stage-coaches!
Reformism and nationalism in the workers’ movement go hand in hand. Both are the consequence of shrinking from the tasks of the world socialist revolution.
Marxists are all in favour of reforms—of every single reform achievable in the day-to-day struggle of the working class. But Marxists are resolutely opposed to reformism—which substitutes illusions in continual gradual changes within the framework of capitalism for the need of the workers’ movement to prepare itself for the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist class.
The struggle against reformism is not only against its mistaken ideas, but against the entire weight of capitalist society and the power of the capitalist state, pressing upon the workers’ movement. In practice it has been proved that only a disciplined cadre—steeled in the ideas and method of Marxism, rooted among the organised workers and clear as to the nature of the tasks—has the power to survive, to stand firm against the pressures that confront it from all sides, and uphold without weakening the programme of the workers’ revolution.
The struggle to defeat reformism and take the workers’ movement forward thus developed, first and foremost, as the struggle to build a Marxist cadre—to arm the organised workers politically and prepare them to rally around themselves the mass of the workers in action. Lenin made this struggle the principal content of his life’s work—and this, his greatest contribution to the international workers’ movement, will remain undimmed in history.
The correctness of his approach was proved in practice in the course of the Russian Revolution when the working class, led by the Bolshevik Party, took power and established the world’s first workers’ state.
The permanent revolution in Russia
It had been the perspective of Marx and Engels that the working class would overthrow capitalism first in the countries where it was most developed, probably in Britain or France. Thus they expected that, once started, the socialist revolution would quickly sweep the whole world.
History, however, followed a more contradictory course. It was in a backward country that the proletariat first took power. Russia was ruled by an absolute monarchy; a semi-feudal landowning class still held enormous power; capitalism was only partially developed; and the peasantry formed the mass of the population.
But in Russia the working class, with the support of the peasant masses, was not only able to smash the old feudal-bureaucratic state and clear away the feudal residue, but to expropriate the bourgeoisie and set in motion the development of the productive forces within a framework of state ownership and planning.
How could this feat be accomplished? How could Russia take so enormous a step towards socialism without passing first through the entire development of capitalism? How could the role of the bourgeoisie in taking Russia forward have already been exhausted when pre-capitalist relations still permeated the society?
The answer lies in the uneven and combined development of capitalism.
Capitalism had become an international system; but its spread around the world had not taken place evenly, nor did it repeat in every country the same gradual process of accumulation that it had followed in its historical cradles of Britain, Belgium or France. Instead, capital was exported in fully-fledged and concentrated forms to relatively undeveloped countries.
In Russia in 1908, for example, a far larger proportion of workers were concentrated in factories employing over 1,000 workers than was the case even in the United States. Imperialism imposed the most advanced relations of monopoly capitalism on countries and colonies where the majority of the people still laboured under pre-capitalist relations.
On an ever extending front, the capitalist class internationally stood in confrontation with the growing forces of the working class. But the relationship of class forces in the colonies and the semi-colonies of imperialism inevitably developed in a different way than it had done in the older capitalist countries.
In the less developed countries the emergent bourgeoisie led from the start a narrow and precarious existence. Fighting to carve out a national state and a market for itself against the confines of the old pre-capitalist order, it was squeezed on the one hand by the overwhelming power of its more developed capitalist rivals, and on the other by the struggles of the awakening proletariat.
From the start in these countries the proletariat played a role out of all proportion to its size. Dispossessed peasants streamed to the towns in search of work. The large factories transplanted from the advanced countries of capitalism immediately drew together these fresh contingents of the proletariat as a concentrated and cohesive force. Young and volatile, these workers were able to gain strength and confidence also from the struggles of the most developed sections of the working class movement in other countries.
The classical revolutions against feudalism and absolutism were ‘bourgeois revolutions’ in the sense that their essential task was to clear away the pre-capitalist barriers to the development of a free-market system. These revolutions had served to carry the bourgeoisie to power on the tide of a mass movement under the banner of liberty and democracy.
But, as even the great French Revolution of 1789 showed, the bourgeoisie was always fearful of the revolutionary masses and hastened to oppose the ‘excesses’ of the popular movement. Thus in France, it was the radical petty-bourgeois who carried through the overthrow of feudalism, on the basis of the peasants and the urban poor.
It was the experience of all bourgeois revolutions that the bourgeoisie tended to become counter-revolutionary to the degree that the masses threatened to carry the democratic slogans to their practical conclusion.
In the German revolution of 1848, as we have seen, the bourgeoisie’s fear of the proletariat pushed it into the camp of reaction without delay.
In this and subsequent revolutions, therefore, the proletariat stood forward as the consistent ally and champion of the peasant masses, whom the bourgeoisie found it increasingly necessary to desert in favour of political compromises with the feudal landlords.
The transition to imperialism, carrying within it the seeds of the socialist revolution on a world scale, finally removed the possibility for new sections of the world bourgeoisie to lead a revolution, or to champion the democratic aspirations of the masses. The hostility of the bourgeoisie to the democratic revolution would increasingly be the hallmark of the epoch.
The remorseless expansionist drive of capitalism, extending the world market to the furthest reaches of the earth, stimulated the emergence of a bourgeoisie in country after country. But these new contingents of capitalism have been feeble in the extreme. They have been tied hand and foot to the imperialist monopolies. Politically, they have depended on maintaining many of the existing pre-capitalist forms of rule, often of the most reactionary kind.
The counter-revolutionary character of the bourgeoisie in this epoch, its hopeless inability in particular to take society forward in the under-developed countries, has had the result that the struggle of the masses for land, for democratic rights, for national liberation and self-determination, has continually come in conflict with capitalist rule itself.
The process of the Russian Revolution from 1905 to 1917 clearly demonstrated this fact.
Already in the (defeated) revolution of 1905 the working class showed itself to be the most consistently revolutionary class in the struggle against Tsarism and for democratic rights. Through its own independent organs of struggle—the soviets, or councils of delegates elected from the factories and workers’ districts—the Russian working class provided the focus and driving force in the struggle of the masses in general.
In practice, the revolutionary workers led the mass movement against the reactionary alliance of the capitalist class with the landowners. This placed the programme of the working class—the programme of social revolution—on the order of the day as the only concrete alternative to the rule of landlordism and capitalism.
From the time of its formation in 1898, the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party had based itself on the need for the organisational independence of the working class. Under the pressures of the developing revolutionary situation, however, conflicting political tendencies began to emerge within it.
There were those among the leaders who capitulated to radical bourgeois opinion. This tendency—the Mensheviks—took as their guiding idea the fact that the tasks of the Russian revolution were bourgeois-democratic in character. These tasks were the overthrow of the Tsarist autocracy, the distribution of land to the peasants and the ending of national oppression. Such a democratic struggle, argued the Mensheviks, must be led by the liberal bourgeoisie.
The under-development of Russia, in their view, made it inevitable that the country would have to undergo a whole period of capitalist rule.
Lenin and the Bolshevik tendency, together with Trotsky, agreed that the revolutionary tasks were democratic in character. But they differed fundamentally with the Mensheviks as to the political conclusions which followed from this.
They emphatically rejected the mechanical, ‘stages’ conception of Menshevism. The liberal bourgeoisie, they pointed out, was incapable of playing a revolutionary role against Tsarism and would prove itself the enemy of the revolution.
The fundamental social task of the revolution was to expropriate the landlords’ land, and distribute it to the peasantry. But the bankers and capitalists were tied socially and economically to the landowners by a thousand threads. This made the bourgeoisie incapable of supporting—let alone leading—a peasant struggle to seize the land.
Only through the revolutionary seizure of power by the oppressed and exploited masses in society, could the democratic tasks be carried out in Russia. This required the combined forces of the working class and the poor peasants to break down the resistance of the monarchy, the aristocracy and the capitalist class.
Lenin and Trotsky stood implacably for the independent organisation of the working class, and explained that only the workers’ organisations could lead the peasant masses to a revolutionary victory. But prior to 1917, a difference existed between Lenin and Trotsky on the relationship between the working class and the peasantry that would materialise in the course of the revolution.
Lenin doubted whether the workers’ party would be able, in a revolutionary government, to maintain its leadership over the overwhelmingly greater peasant masses. Preferring to leave the question open, he therefore advanced the deliberately vague formula of “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” in his perspective.
Trotsky, on the other hand, foresaw as early as 1904-5 that the proletariat would have to establish its own rule in Russia in order for the revolution to be carried through. Only in this way could a revolutionary alliance of the workers and peasant masses be maintained against the bourgeoisie.
Trotsky therefore advanced the bold idea that the working class would have to take state power, and establish the dictatorship of the proletariat supported by the poor peasants, as the only means by which the democratic tasks of the Russian revolution could be carried out. Once in power, the workers’ government would then be compelled also to proceed to socialist tasks.
Convinced by the course of the struggle itself, Lenin came to the same conclusion by March 1917. He argued furiously against those who wanted to apply the formula of “the democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry”. (In fact, he was soon to point out, the bankrupt regime of Kerensky represented the nearest that Russia could come to the “democratic dictatorship”—and that regime, far from being democratic, was merely preparing the way for bourgeois and aristocratic counter-revolution.)
In fact it was the idea of the permanent revolution—the understanding that the democratic and socialist revolutions were telescoped together and required the seizure of power by the working class—which enabled the Bolshevik party, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, to guide the Russian Revolution to victory in October 1917.
In the uprising of February 1917 the working class, drawing the mass of the people behind it, had over-thrown the Tsar. As in 1905 the workers formed soviets as the expression of their independent power. The old state machine lay in ruins. Had the whole working class been under Marxist leadership, it could have taken power immediately—there would have been no reason for delay.
But the Bolsheviks did not, at that stage, have majority support in the working class, still less among the peasants. In the soviets in February, it was the reformists—the Mensheviks and the party known as the Social Revolutionaries—who were in control. The reformists, far from struggling to complete the revolution, struggled only to halt it. They used their majority in the soviets to prop up the remnants of the old state machine and to hand over power to the ‘liberal’ bourgeoisie.
Confused by the tempo of events, and before Lenin’s arrival from exile, even some leaders of the Bolshevik party (including Stalin) leaned towards the Menshevik policy of attempting to ‘stabilise’ the democratic revolution on a capitalist basis—a disastrous course which, if pursued, could only have allowed imperialism and reaction to recover and drown the revolution in blood.
But, thanks to the fierce opposition of Lenin—who returned to Russia in April 1917—these dangerous ideas were defeated. Under Lenin’s leadership, the Bolsheviks broke completely with the ‘democratic’ bourgeoisie. Instead they directed their efforts to winning the mass of the working class, and through them the peasantry, to a programme for the overthrow of landlordism and capitalism.
Through brilliant and flexible tactics in the revolutionary crisis, the Bolsheviks succeeded in drawing the active masses behind them. Thus, in October they were able to depose the crumbling Kerensky regime through an almost bloodless insurrection and placed power in the hands of the workers’ councils. The majority of the peasants soon rallied behind the workers’ government.
Such was the revolutionary ferment in the armed forces that contingents of soldiers and sailors participated in the insurrection while the overwhelming majority gave it their support.
Under the leadership of a Marxist cadre, the working class had for the first time in history established its own state on lasting foundations and created conditions for the mass of the people to take control of their own destiny.
The Russian Revolution was not a ‘two-stage’ revolution. The regime which was propped up by the reformist leadership between February and October was not a ‘bourgeois-democratic’ regime. Undoubtedly it was bourgeois; but it showed itself totally incapable of carrying through a single fundamental democratic reform.
The limited gains of the masses, after February, were made only by taking matters into their own hands. The demands of the peasantry and the oppressed nationalities, however, could only be secured after the working class had taken state power in October.
The Bolsheviks rallied workers and peasants behind the demand for ‘Peace, Bread, and Land’—not in February, but for the October Revolution. A democratic slogan thus formed the rallying point of mass support for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Thus a crushing defeat was inflicted on world capitalism, not in one of its most advanced centres, but at its weakest link. The socialist revolution had begun. The task that now lay in the hands of the working-class movement internationally was to carry it to completion.
Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks, applying the method of Marxism, had always been unanimous that the socialist revolution could only be carried to completion as an international revolution.
Internationalism conditioned their entire outlook. They were convinced of the ripeness of the world for socialist revolution, and saw the seizure of power by the Russian workers as an enormous spur to the socialist revolution in industrialised Europe, which would in turn come to their aid.
The Mensheviks, in contrast, not being genuine internationalists, not applying the Marxist method, were overawed by the backwardness of Russia when considered on its own. This led to their narrow conception of stages; it impelled them to a reformist position; when in power they maintained Russia’s involvement in the imperialist war; ultimately they sided openly with counter-revolution.
In the understanding of the Bolsheviks, the seizure of power by the working class in Russia formed part of the socialist revolution internationally, but could not in itself create socialism. Lenin and Trotsky insisted like Marx and Engels before them, that a socialist society could not be achieved in a single country—let alone a country as backward as Russia at the time of the First World War. But there was not a grain of fatalism or pessimism in their approach.
The workers’ state in Russia would obviously, of necessity, defend to the utmost every revolutionary gain. All attempts at capitalist counter-revolution would be fiercely resisted. The development of the economy through state ownership and a plan would proceed with all the speed that circumstances allowed.
But the principal task of the first workers’ state was to promote the international development of the revolution as the only way of securing and extending the gains that had been made.
Not only the achievement of socialism, but all the remaining democratic tasks which the world bourgeoisie was no longer capable of fulfilling, now rested in the workers’ hands. Henceforth, the struggle of the peasants against landlords, of oppressed nationalities against their oppressors, the struggle against imperialism, was part and parcel of the struggle of the working class internationally to take power and abolish the obsolete order of capitalism.
The Bolshevik Party, from the moment of taking power, played a leading role in reorganising the international movement of the workers and the international struggle against capitalism.
The Second International had collapsed as its chauvinist leaders had rallied to support the war effort of their opposing national bourgeoisies. The Russian workers’ state stood out as a beacon for all genuine internationalists and revolutionaries world-wide. It riveted the attention of the toilers struggling against poverty, exploitation and war.
Against this background, in Moscow in 1919, the founding conference was held of a new working-class International: the Third (Communist) International.
The European revolution defeated
The First World War accelerated rather than solved the crisis of capitalism which had provoked it.
Capitalism emerged from the war in a severely weakened state. In the capitalist countries that had gone to war, one-third of the national wealth had been destroyed—in the case of Germany, 60%. State debts had risen to 62% of total production. In 1920, only half of productive capacity in these countries was in use. The consumption of coal was less than in 1913. Agricultural production was one-third lower than the average before the war. Throughout the capitalist world, the economic and political order lay in ruins.
Out of the blood and fire of the war, a great upsurge in the class struggle once again took place. The imperialist countries were racked by economic and social crises; and their rulers found themselves faced by an armed, battle-hardened and embittered proletariat.
Nor were the newer capitalist countries, where there had been a temporary upsurge of industry and a strengthening of the working class, immune from the general crisis of capitalism. In China, India, Latin America—and in South Africa—workers moved into militant action. The Russian Revolution itself was only the first great wave in an international revolutionary tide.
The Bolshevik Party, in leading the Russian workers to victory, had stamped itself as the vanguard force of the international workers’ movement. The Communist International (Comintern) was formed in the same tradition of working-class internationalism. The new International was created as an instrument for extending the gains of the October Revolution by leading the workers to victory over capitalism throughout Europe, and from there in the rest of the world.
The formation of the Comintern acted as a magnet to the most militant sections of workers in every capitalist country. The Communist Party of South Africa, for example, was formed under its direct inspiration.
Under the pressure of the workers, the parties of the Second International split in country after country, with large numbers of the rank and file—in some cases the majority—going over to the Comintern. Even certain reformist leaders, pushed to the left by the pressure from below, were forced to seek affiliation to the new revolutionary International. In the course of just two or three years of revolutionary crisis, the Communist International emerged as the most powerful revolutionary force the world had ever seen.
The revolutionary storms out of which the Comintern arose presented the working class with many opportunities to take power in the capitalist countries of Europe. Revolutions took place (although they were eventually defeated) in Hungary and Germany in 1918-1920. Revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations developed in Italy, France and Britain in 1917-21, and there was a revolutionary situation again in Germany in 1923.
The failure of the parties of the Communist International to take full advantage of these opportunities was to be of historic significance: it was the first link in the chain of events that has delayed the world socialist revolution for several generations.
What were the reasons for this failure—why was the Comintern unable, under favourable objective conditions, to carry out the purpose for which it was created?
A revolutionary leadership of the working class does not spring into existence fully-fledged. It needs to be developed—to be steeled in the workers’ daily struggle; to be educated through experience in the method, the ideas and the discipline of Marxism. The young parties of the Third International had not yet gone through this development. Worse still, they carried within them many of the dangerous weaknesses that the Second International had bequeathed.
Only in the Bolshevik Party in Russia had a relentless struggle been waged by a Marxist leadership against opportunism, confusion and error, thus developing a cadre that was able to rise to its task. In the remainder of the Second International, political clarity had become dimmed by reformist teachings and organisation had become flabby with inertia. Within the parties of the new International, out of their enormously promising potential, a Marxist cadre had to be built afresh.
History, however, did not allow sufficient time for this. Almost immediately, in country after country, the young forces of the Communist International were flung into life-and-death struggles with the capitalist class. Tragically, they proved unable to seize correctly the opportunities presented.
The workers’ magnificent movement, frustrated by the lack of effective leadership, began to fragment and subside. This permitted the first ominous advances of the counter-revolution—in Hungary, with the crushing of the Soviet Republic in 1919; in Italy, with the triumph of Fascism under Mussolini in 1922. Elsewhere—above all in Germany—the mistakes of the Communist leadership permitted the old reformist leaders to regain their influence over large sections of the class.
Yet, despite these setbacks for the workers’ movement, capitalism could not recover from its sickness. The depths of the inter-war capitalist crisis still lay ahead. For the workers new opportunities would open up of rectifying past mistakes and carrying further the socialist revolution. Far worse blows would have to be suffered before the working class would be defeated for any length of time.
Degeneration of the Soviet Union
The first setbacks of the workers’ revolution in Europe meant the prolonged isolation of the first workers’ state in a relatively backward country. With support from the advanced proletariat and the modern industrial economies of Europe and America cut off, the Soviet Union was thrown back on its own meagre resources.
The Russian working class had been exhausted by the rigours of the First World War and the years of civil war that followed. The economy was devastated. Tens of thousands of the most politically conscious workers had been among the first to sacrifice their lives in defence of the revolution against intervention by 21 armies of imperialism. Skilled technicians and administrators who supported the revolution were few and far between; yet these skills were desperately needed to rebuild the shattered society.
Under these conditions, the Soviet state had no alternative but to rely on the trained people who were present—in general, the same individuals who had previously served under Tsarism. With the working class severely weakened, a new bureaucracy began to coalesce. Exploiting the exhaustion of the workers and poor peasants, relying on the support of the middle and rich peasants, and abusing its monopoly of skills and administrative know-how, the bureaucracy by degrees wrested control of the state apparatus from the remaining cadre of the revolutionary workers.
The degeneration of the Soviet state went hand in hand with the bureaucratic take-over of the Communist Party (as the Bolshevik Party had been renamed in 1919). Together with Trotsky, despite the burdens of a fatal illness, Lenin fought the last great battle of his life against this counter-revolutionary encroachment. With growing arrogance, however, the bureaucracy continued to eliminate workers’ democracy from the state and the party, steadily consolidating its powers and privilege.
Even before Lenin’s death, Stalin began to emerge as the leader and personification of this dictatorship by a bureaucratic caste. The bureaucracy, while hailing the name of Lenin, suppressed his political testament (which called for the dismissal of Stalin from the position of General Secretary) and trampled his teachings underfoot.
Trotsky explained the character of Stalin’s regime in the Soviet Union by comparing its rise to power with the political counter-revolution carried out by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early years of the bourgeois revolution in France. The power of feudalism had been smashed in France by a mass revolutionary movement, which brought the bourgeoisie to power. But the bourgeoisie could not stabilise a democratic regime.
The military dictatorship of Bonaparte took over, drove the masses from the streets, crushed the democratic movement, and usurped political power from the bourgeoisie—but nevertheless defended bourgeois property relations against feudal restitution.
Bonaparte’s regime was therefore a form of bourgeois state, despite the fact that the bourgeoisie itself did not directly rule. That much was commonly acknowledged in Marxist theory.
A workers’ revolution, Trotsky explained, could be affected similarly by a political counter-revolution.
The course of events had prevented the Russian working class from consolidating its democratic hold on power. The direct rule of the proletariat had been replaced by the dictatorship of a bureaucracy.
This regime ruled by the sword, crushing workers’ democracy but nevertheless maintaining in the last analysis the property relations of a workers’ state. To characterise this regime, Trotsky used the term proletarian bonapartism.
The bureaucracy thus faced in two directions. On the one hand, in the interests of its own power, it was compelled to defend state control of industry and the planned economy against all attempts at capitalist restoration. At the same time it defended its own privileged existence, through absolute control of the state machine, against the working class.
The bureaucracy was—and remains to this day—inherently opposed to democratic control by the masses over the state and society, and to any independent movement of the workers which might challenge its power.
In 1924 the Stalinist bureaucracy abruptly produced its ‘theory’ that it was possible to construct ‘socialism’ within a single country. This theory was a total repudiation of the whole tradition and method of Marxism, and of everything the Bolshevik Party had stood for. In reality, it reflected the fact that the developing bureaucratic caste was in the process of carrying through a political counter-revolution against the working class.
Could ‘socialism’ be built in Russia alone as the bureaucracy claimed? The country had certainly undergone a socialist revolution. Capitalism had been overthrown in Russia. But could the transition to a socialist society—i.e. socialism—be effected under a bureaucratic regime?
Marx and Engels had anticipated the overthrow of capitalism first in the industrialised countries; therefore they had not expected any long interruption in the carrying through of the socialist revolution world-wide. Nor, for the same reason, had they doubted that the over-throw of the bourgeoisie would result in workers’ states democratically organised and controlled by the working class itself.
The workers’ revolution, in their perspective, would thus from the outset release, at the very centre of world production, the capacity for economic development and social progress on a much higher level than had been attainable under capitalism. This would take place under workers’ democracy. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the writings of Marx and Engels the ideas of the socialist revolution, a workers’ state, the dictatorship of the proletariat and socialism are often used inter-changeably, to refer to one and the same thing. The same may be found in many of the writings of Lenin and Trotsky, particularly in the earlier years.
Socialism, nevertheless, has always borne a precise meaning in Marxism, as a careful study of the works of these great teachers will show. Socialism is itself a transitional form of society towards communism—towards conditions of material abundance in which the class division of society itself will have ceased, and in which all need for a repressive machinery, or state, standing over society will have disappeared.
Elaborating Marx’s and Engels’ ideas, Lenin explained in detail in State and Revolution how the dictatorship of the proletariat—necessary at first to suppress the bourgeoisie and the bourgeois reaction—would itself fall away with the dissolution of the classes and the withering away of the state. This process of withering away—an essential feature of socialism—would in fact begin with the very seizure of power by the working class. But that required workers’ democracy as the political form of the workers’ state.
It is enough to glance through the works of Lenin to realise how hopelessly confused and contradictory is the very notion (popularised by Stalinism) of a ‘socialist state’—let alone the use of that term to describe the totalitarian monstrosities which have arisen in the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
The rise of the bureaucracy in Russia after the revolution represented a political counter-revolution against workers’ democracy—but it remained on the foundations of state ownership and planning, the economic foundations of a workers’ state.
Thus Russia remained a workers’ state and a society in transition—but with its passage to socialism blocked by two formidable obstacles, each reinforcing the other. These were the delay in the revolution in the industrialised capitalist countries, which alone could have opened the way of rapid progress to material abundance; and the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy, whose overthrow by the working class is essential before any withering away of the state can begin.
Stalin’s idea of ‘socialism in one country’ denied the very ABC of Marxism, but its logic for the bureaucracy is not difficult to understand. ‘Building socialism’ and supporting the bureaucracy were proclaimed to be one and the same.
The bureaucracy depends entirely on the nation-state to safeguard its position. Inevitably, this has meant the repudiation of working-class internationalism.
In practice the Moscow bureaucracy increasingly abandoned the struggle to carry the revolution beyond the borders of the Soviet Union itself—thus turning its back on the immense progress that would have opened up for humanity as a whole through the spread of the socialist revolution to the industrialised West.
A bonapartist regime, having no firm social roots of its own, is compelled to balance between the opposing class forces. The bureaucracy has thus had an inherent tendency to zig-zag, switching from one policy to its opposite without any rational basis other than the protection of its own power, and demanding unquestioning obedience to each bewildering twist and turn.
The Russian bureaucracy, as it lifted itself above society as a privileged upper layer, leaned at one moment on the rich peasants (or kulaks) to support it against the poor peasants and workers, and the next upon the workers to defend it against a capitalist recovery.
To secure the workers’ state against capitalist restoration and protect the gains of the revolution, Trotsky and the Bolshevik Left Opposition advanced in 1923 the first proposal for a comprehensive economic plan. Despite the limitations of development in conditions of isolation, this would at least make possible the development of industry under state ownership and provide the manufactured goods which would help to win the support of the peasantry for the vital collectivisation of agriculture.
This policy was rejected outright by Stalin’s regime. “Socialism at a snail’s pace” became its motto in this period. Stalin coined the stupid joke that to try and build the hydro-electric dam on the Dnieper River was like telling a poor peasant to buy a gramophone instead of a cow. Here was summed up the contemptuous attitude of the bureaucrat, not merely to the workers, but to the peasant masses.
Incapable of mobilising the energies of the masses and raising their consciousness for the tasks of reconstruction, the bureaucracy preferred at first to rely on the rich peasants. Agriculture would be developed on the basis of private profit.
What Lenin had earlier seen as a short-term expedient under desperate circumstances at the end of the civil war, was turned by the bureaucracy into a strategy for the long term. “Enrich yourselves!” was Bukharin’s call to the kulaks. The idea was, through increasing the exploitation of the poor peasants, to extract the surplus necessary for industrial development.
But by 1927 the kulaks had so enriched themselves, and consolidated their grip on agriculture that they tried to hold the regime to ransom. The workers’ state, bureaucratically deformed and divided internally, faced a challenge to its very existence. The pressure of the kulaks, raising the spectre of the restoration of capitalism, threatened also the basis of the bureaucracy’s own privilege and power.
Therefore, in a complete about-turn, Stalin swung over to a policy of all-out industrialisation, forced collectivisation, and the liquidation of the kulaks.
The Left Opposition’s earlier proposals for a five-year plan were now adopted, but in the form of a monstrous caricature, which imposed terrible hardship on the working masses. The forced collectivisation of agriculture inflicted a toll on the peasantry, through famine, deportation and slaughter, of an estimated 20 million dead.
This was the ‘socialism’ of the usurper bureaucracy. The state, withdrawn from workers’ control, had become a horrible parasite on the back of society.
Despite this, however, when contrasted with the inability of decaying capitalism to develop the productive forces, the role of the Stalinist bureaucracy as managers of the planned economy was, and remained for a considerable period, historically progressive. Even under the deformities of a dictatorship, great material gains were made in comparison with the stagnation of capitalism, especially in an under-developed country.
Although at probably three times the cost of the capitalist economies, backward Russia became transformed under the rule of Stalinism into an industrialised country, eventually rivalling the major capitalist powers in production and surpassing them in military might.
In the period from 1928 to 1938, the annual output of electricity in the USSR rose from 5 to 40 milliard Kwhs; steel from 4,3 to 18,1 million tons; machine tools from 2,000 to 55,300; and motor vehicles and tractors from a mere 2,100 to 260,000. The output of basic consumer goods also rose steeply.
These achievements demonstrated over and over again the superiority of a planned economy. In a backward country, where it was still largely a question of developing an economic infrastructure and laying the basis for industry, the economy could be managed and controlled by a bureaucratic elite—with inevitable waste, inefficiency and corruption—and yet still show spectacular progress. It took several more decades before the Russian economy, massively extended and sophisticated on the basis of modern industry, began to seize up in the stranglehold of the bureaucracy.
Degeneration of the Comintern
The rise of the bureaucracy to power in Russia was not accomplished without great political struggles and, increasingly, the imposition of a police dictatorship. Of the gains that had been made by the revolutionary workers through the October Revolution, nothing remained by the end of the 1920s but state ownership and economic planning. The very name “Soviet Union” had become no more than a token of the brief period following the October Revolution when soviets (workers’ councils) held power.
The struggle of the bureaucracy against the Marxists—grouped as the Left Opposition within the Communist Party—became increasingly vicious. The bureaucracy, fearing above all else the resurgence of the workers, became increasingly tyrannical in its repression of all opposition.
The dictatorship of Stalin was consolidated over a period of ten years of one-sided civil war by the bureaucracy against the working class and peasants. Not only were the trade unions and the Party transformed into mere tools of the bureaucracy; thousands of worker-militants were murdered by the regime in ‘purges’, and countless thousands more were sent to a lingering death in Stalin’s slave-labour camps.
Consistent Bolsheviks were slaughtered in their thousands. Trotsky, the leading spokesman of Bolshevism after Lenin’s death and leader of the Left Opposition, was first exiled to Siberia, then deported from the Soviet Union, and finally murdered in Mexico in 1940 by an agent of Stalin’s secret police.
Those in the Communist Party who adhered to the position of Marxism and Bolshevism fought every step of the way against the degeneration of the Soviet regime. But, with the isolation of the revolution in a backward country, with the workers’ movement weakened and unable to check the bureaucracy, the balance of forces turned more and more against them.
The degeneration of the regime in the Soviet Union was accompanied by the degeneration of the Communist International. With the growing influence of Stalin and his henchmen, the early weaknesses and errors of the Communist party leaderships were not systematically analysed in the International, and thus remained uncorrected. More and more the policies of the Comintern were shaped, not by the requirements of the international class struggle, but by the interests of the Russian bureaucracy—which were held to represent ‘socialism’.
Errors became compounded and mistaken policies entrenched. In Britain, the Comintern fostered an un-critical alliance between the Russian trade unions and reformist leaders of the British trade union movement—and maintained it even after the British trade union leaders had cynically betrayed the General Strike of 1926 and the miners’ strike that continued. In consequence the vanguard of the working class in Britain was severely disoriented, and the infant British Communist Party lost an historical opportunity to develop as a mass force.
In China, even more disastrous policies were followed. Between 1925 and 1927 the working class of China launched a series of strikes and uprisings against the semi-colonial regime and its imperialist overlords. This stimulated a massive movement among the peasantry for the seizure of land from the landlords.
The membership of the trade unions doubled and doubled again in three years, embracing nearly three million workers by 1927. The peasant leagues in the southern provinces organised ten million peasants. The Chinese Communist Party grew from a tiny group to a force of 60,000. The Chinese working class was demonstrating its tremendous capacity to lead the struggle of the masses for power in society.
The people of the Soviet Union, completely encircled by imperialism, had everything to gain from a revolutionary victory in China. Not only would it have changed the balance of forces internationally, it would have given the Russian working class a powerful boost in the struggle to restore workers’ democracy and regenerate the workers’ state.
But the Russian bureaucracy feared the independent movement of the working class and held its revolutionary potential in contempt. Instead they had gross illusions in the capacity of the Chinese bourgeoisie to struggle against imperialism.
In consequence a fatal policy of class-collaboration was followed in regard to China. At the insistence of Stalin and the Comintern leadership, the Chinese Communist Party leadership capitulated to the bourgeois leadership of the Kuomintang nationalist movement.
The Kuomintang (KMT) claimed to represent the interests of the Chinese people in the struggle against the landlords, imperialism and its local agents. In fact, the bourgeois leadership of the KMT was tied by a thousand threads to the landlord class and the imperialists. Even less than in Russia in 1917 was the so-called ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie capable of carrying through a bourgeois-democratic revolution—these tasks necessitated a struggle against the bourgeoisie.
Yet Stalin and the Comintern leadership held back the Chinese CP from taking the lead in the struggle against landlordism and imperialism, and fighting for a socialist revolution.
In a caricature even of Menshevism, the KMT was welcomed into the Comintern as a sympathising section. Thus covered with the mantle of world communism, the KMT leader Chiang Kai-shek could prepare for his role of executioner of the revolutionary workers.
The Comintern leadership instructed the Chinese Communists to sacrifice their own programme in favour of the bourgeois programme of the KMT, to enrol in it as individual members, to dissolve their independent press—and even hand over a list of their members to the KMT leadership.
The result was the crushing defeat of the Chinese revolution of the 1920s. The liquidationist policy of the CP leadership left the working class politically disarmed in the class confrontations that emerged inevitably out of the revolutionary crisis in society. In 1927 the flower of the Chinese proletariat was slaughtered at the hands of their supposed ‘progressive’ ally, the Chinese bourgeoisie headed by Chiang Kai-shek.
In the meantime, in Russia, the Stalinist regime was becoming alarmed at the growing power of the wealthy peasants. Simultaneously, on the international front, the regime had experienced disastrous failures of its policy of class-collaboration and tame compromises with the social-democratic leaders in the West.
Having burned their fingers on one mistake, the Comintern leadership abruptly swung over in 1928 to the opposite mistake. From short-sighted opportunism, they veered blindly to ultra-left sectarianism. This produced the most terrible defeat that the working-class movement had suffered in its entire history.
The German bourgeoisie, reeling under the blows of the world economic collapse of 1929-1932, had unleashed the Nazi movement, led by Hitler, in a desperate effort to crush the workers’ movement. The social-democratic leadership, to which a majority of German workers looked at that stage, proved too degenerate and timid to lead a struggle against Hitler.
Thus the Communist Party had the task of mobilising a united struggle of the workers’ parties against the fascist menace, and carrying through the overthrow of capitalism. Instead, the CP leadership, at the dictate of the Comintern officials, ordered their followers into action … against the social-democratic workers!
The reason given for this was that there was ‘no difference’ between social-democrats and fascists; that all those outside the Communist Party were ‘objectively’ fascists; that the ‘social-fascists’ (social-democrats) were already in power; that the ‘social-fascists’ needed to be destroyed before the ‘Hitler-fascists’ could be dealt with.
Thaelmann, the German CP leader, made clear the official Comintern attitude in a speech in September 1932 (at the same time showing, incidentally, that he completely misunderstood the strategy of united rank-and-file struggle against the fascists called for by Trotsky and the Left Opposition):
“In his pamphlet on the question, How will National Socialism be Defeated?, Trotsky gives always one reply: ‘The German CP must make a bloc with the Social Democracy…’. In framing this bloc, Trotsky sees the only way for completely saving the German working class against fascism. EITHER THE CP WILL MAKE A BLOC WITH THE SOCIAL DEMOCRACY OR THE GERMAN WORKING CLASS IS LOST FOR 10 TO 20 YEARS.
“This is the theory of a completely ruined fascist and counter-revolutionary. This theory is the worst theory, the most dangerous theory and the most criminal that Trotsky has constructed in the last years of his counter-revolutionary propaganda.”
Through this incredible sectarian madness, Hitler was permitted to come to power without a shot being fired against him by the strongest Communist Party in Europe.
The defeat of the German working class in 1933 led to the destruction of the workers’ organisations and strengthened the hand of reaction throughout Europe, thus opening the way to the Second World War. For the working class internationally, it was a catastrophic blow.
Yet, incredibly, the Comintern leadership refused to admit that any defeat had been suffered; consequently, it refused to re-examine and correct its position. Instead, it proclaimed that the fascist victory in Germany would be followed immediately and effortlessly by the victory of the workers!
The Left Opposition in the Soviet Union and the Communist movement internationally fought against these wrong policies with all the means at its disposal. At every stage it worked out and put forward the revolutionary Marxist alternative.
But through repression of debate, expulsions, the replacement of leaders, and assassinations of opposition elements, the Communist Parties had become transformed into tools of the Moscow bureaucracy. The task of defending the Soviet Union by carrying forward the socialist revolution on a world scale had been replaced by the narrow diplomatic function of serving the interests of the bureaucracy. In the Soviet Union itself, nothing remained by the 1930s of the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and its leadership.
The period of Popular Fronts
The degeneration of the Comintern was revealed over and over again in the years leading up to the Second World War. The catastrophic depression of the capitalist economy in 1929-1932 had thrown the whole world into turmoil and opened up deep social crisis throughout most of Western Europe.
The CP leaders proved quite incapable of taking advantage of even the most favourable conditions for the overthrow of capitalism. Instead they were responsible for fresh defeats of the workers’ movement internationally and of the socialist revolution.
These defeats were no longer merely the result of inexperience, short-sightedness or error. During the 1930s they came to represent the conscious policy of Stalin and the bureaucracy.
After Hitler’s victory, the Russian bureaucracy woke up to the need to protect itself against fascism. It did not attempt, however, to destroy the fascist monster by mobilising an international movement of the workers for revolution.
The consequence of victory would have been to rally the Russian workers and put an end to the privileged existence of the bureaucracy itself.
Instead, at the Comintern conference of 1935, the bureaucracy announced a sharp turn to the right. Its policy now became aimed at establishing alliances with the ‘Allied’ imperialist powers ranged against German imperialism.
In order to cement agreement with this section of the bourgeoisie, Stalin and his followers at the head of the Communist parties internationally showed themselves quite prepared to sacrifice the workers’ struggle for socialism. Throughout the world they now proclaimed the tactic of the ‘popular front’.
By this was meant forming alliances between the workers’ parties and the so-called ‘progressive’ capitalist parties (the liberals) for the purpose of defending democracy. According to the theory of the ‘popular front’, the working class must give up the revolutionary struggle for power; must agree not to tamper with bourgeois property or attempt to overthrow capitalism—in return for the support of the liberal bourgeois against fascism and military dictatorship.
This approach flies in, the face of everything Marxism teaches. One has only to compare it with Marx’s and Engels’ above-quoted advice to the German workers in 1850 to see the contrast plainly.
‘Popular frontism’ likewise shows a complete disregard of the material basis of the struggle for democracy. The threat to democracy in the capitalist world springs from the incapacity of the system to consistently raise or maintain living standards for the mass of the people; the necessity for the bourgeoisie under conditions of capitalist crisis to attack the position of the working class.
Faced by a powerful challenge of the workers’ movement at such times, capitalism can only grant very temporary reforms. The capitalists—including the liberals—are obliged to take them back at the first opportunity. Right-wing, military-police and fascist dictatorships have historically served the bourgeoisie as the instruments of this attack on the working people.
The foundation for reaction is the capitalist state machinery—the ‘armed bodies of men’ as Engels put it—which maintain the rule of the bourgeoisie.
Because of their class interests, the liberal bourgeoisie can never agree to act decisively against the forces of reaction. Above all they cannot undermine their own state power. Coalition governments with the liberals, no matter how ‘progressive’ in words, have repeatedly demonstrated their feebleness, vacillation and paralysis in the face of reactionary threats.
In fact, as Trotsky explained, the liberal bourgeoisie will only make agreements with the workers’ parties when they cannot hold on to power in any other way. They depend in an acute crisis on the leaders of the workers’ movement to hold the masses back from revolution. In this way the ‘popular front’ becomes a strike-breaking conspiracy against the movement of the working class
Under the cover of the ‘popular front’ the bourgeoisie prepares to bare the fangs of open reaction as soon as conditions allow. In the course of the 1930s, against the background of severe economic and social crisis, the ‘popular front’ policies of the Communist Parties, together with the social-democratic reformists, resulted in a succession of victories for reaction and the capitalist class.
In Spain, between 1931 and 1936, the workers and peasants rose massively against capitalist rule and moved into a series of magnificent struggles.
In 1931 the rule of the king was swept away. In February 1936 the Popular Front of the Socialist and Communist parties with the ‘progressive’ bourgeois republicans, promising sweeping reforms, was voted into power by the workers and peasants.
Immediately the masses surged forward to carry the programme of the Front into practice. Factories were occupied; land was seized by the peasants. The feeble bourgeois Republic was brought within a hair’s breadth of collapse.
General Franco and his fascist movement emerged as the ultimate defender of Spanish capitalism against the workers’ revolution.
In response, workers armed themselves and formed their own militias. Over much of Spain the armed workers were in control of society. All that was necessary, in fact, was to deal the final blow to the remaining organs of the bourgeois state and to consolidate in their place democratic institutions of workers’ power.
Yet the leadership of the Spanish Communist Party, together with the social-democratic reformists, held back the workers from power and propped up the tottering bourgeois regime. The Popular Front government took on the task of reconstructing the capitalist state!
Workers who opposed these reactionary policies—identical to the policies of the Mensheviks in Russia—were disarmed, disorganised and even gunned down by Stalin’s secret police sent to Spain for the purpose. The workers’ militias were forcibly disbanded and power was returned to the capitalist class.
This horrifying betrayal of the revolution split and demoralised the workers’ movement, and left the peasantry in confusion. It opened the way for the victory of Franco in the Civil War and the coming to power of his vicious dictatorship—which lasted almost 40 years.
Inevitably, this defeat meant the immediate slaughter of organised workers, trade unionists and political activists in their thousands—including those who had loyally followed the instructions of the CP leadership.
In France too, between 1934 and 1936, the workers surged forward in waves of struggle against the crisis-ridden capitalist order. Here, too, the CP leaders formed a Popular Front with the ‘progressive’ bourgeoisie.
In May 1936 the coalition of the Communist Party, Socialist Party and bourgeois Radicals gained an electoral majority. The workers saw the coming to power of the Popular Front as a signal to move out onto the streets, occupy the factories, and begin to carry the Popular Front programme into action. Even the armed forces began to be infected by the revolutionary mood of the masses.
Again, however, the CP leadership—no less than the reformists—recoiled in horror from the social revolution which the upsurge of the workers had placed on the agenda. Instead they called for an end to the strikes.
Political relationships within the mass of society change with extreme rapidity in a revolutionary situation, as Lenin always emphasised. Yet the CP leadership refused to acknowledge the revolutionary opportunity now presented. Instead their standpoint was what Marx had denounced as “parliamentary cretinism”. Proclaiming the sanctity of their compromise with the bourgeoisie, and of the parliamentary arithemetic already outstripped by events, the CP leaders held the masses back from revolution. Thus they prepared the defeat of the Popular Front and another victory for reaction.
Defeat after defeat for the working class in Europe did not solve capitalism’s crisis. Fascism itself was only the most rabid symptom of the sickness of the system., Now frenzied competition among the imperialist powers—sharpened by the expansionist drive of Nazi Germany—plunged mankind once again towards war.
In 1939, Stalin signalled the depths to which the Russian bureaucracy had descended —equalling that of the reformists in 1914 — by signing a pact of mutual peace with Hitler. This Pact cleared the way for the German invasion of Poland, which precipitated the Second World War, and was maintained until Hitler invaded Russia in 1941.
In arguing against the false slogan of ‘socialism in one country’, Trotsky had explained the dire consequences it would have for the Soviet workers’ state. As early as 1925, he had also predicted its effects on the parties of the Comintern. Those that accepted this false, anti-Marxist perspective, he warned, would inevitably degenerate into nationalist reformist parties, each tailing behind its ‘own’ bourgeoisie.
By the time of the Second World War, this warning had been amply confirmed. Shortly before the war, for example, the French Communist Party had called for a ‘United National Front’ embracing not only the ‘good’, ‘national’ capitalists but also the ‘good’, ‘national’ French fascists—against the dangers of German fascism!
Every Communist Party in the world suffered degeneration along similar lines. All these parties had remained ‘Communist’ in name only. They no longer had anything genuinely in common with the revolutionary party of Lenin. All that bound them together was dependence on the power of the Russian bureaucracy, expressed in adherence to the cult of Stalin and the uncritical obedience of their leaders to the instructions issuing from the Kremlin.
Thus, on the eve of the Second World War—as in1914—the working class was left without a revolutionary leadership internationally. The consequences of the Stalinist betrayal fell most acutely on the Russian working class itself. The policies of class collaboration—which, it was claimed, would ‘defend the Soviet Union’—led instead to the invasion of the Soviet Union by the most vicious forces of capitalist reaction, inflicting untold havoc on the gains of the October Revolution.
Through the defeats of two decades, the vanguard of the working class internationally had been decimated and demoralised. Millions of organised workers had been driven to lose hope of achieving socialism in their lifetime and resigned themselves bitterly to capitalist rule. Only the shock of still greater events could once again lift the mass of the working class onto the road of fresh revolutionary struggles.
The forces of Marxism world-wide were once again reduced to tiny handfuls. They had struggled within the Communist Parties to win back the Communist workers to the programme of social revolution; but their forces had been too small to prevent catastrophe. After 1933 no alternative remained but to rebuild the workers’ Marxist cadre independently of the Comintern. Its forces would have to be drawn from the layers of fresh young workers who, under the impact of the world crisis, were obliged to turn to the mass organisations of their class.
With the crisis of capitalism unresolved and the working class paralysed by its lack of revolutionary leadership, renewed imperialist war became inevitable. Trotsky, who had long foreseen the coming conflagration, predicted that the war would end in a massive new upsurge of the international working class. The choice that faced humanity, he warned, was that between socialism and barbarism. The future would depend on resolving the crisis of leadership in the working class through the construction of a new mass revolutionary International.
The Second World War and its consequences
The Second World War was the result of the rotten-ripeness of world capitalism for the socialist revolution. The defeat and delay of that revolution made the war inevitable.
The anarchy of capitalism, given free rein by the failure of the workers’ leadership, culminated in a barbaric orgy of destruction. The mass murder of six million Jews in Europe, and the incineration of 150,000 people by two American atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities, were among the gruesome consequences. The Soviet Union, invaded by Nazi Germany in June 1941, suffered for the Stalinist betrayal of the socialist revolution in Europe with at least 20 million dead.
The course and outcome of the Second World War proved the decisive influence on the ensuing epoch. The war unfolded, in Europe, essentially as a struggle to the death between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia.
The ‘Allied’ imperialist powers, on the whole, had banked on Germany and Russia bringing each other to their knees. This would have enabled them—so they hoped—to redivide Eastern Europe into their own spheres of domination and reimpose capitalism on Russia.
But Hitler’s invasion of Russia had an entirely different outcome, and produced a disaster for imperialism.
Stalin himself had been totally unprepared for the invasion and did not believe that the Red Army (its leadership decimated in his purges of the 1930s) was capable of defeating Hitler’s military might. But the Russian workers and peasants were made of sterner stuff.
They were confronted with an invader of unprecedented ferocity, who inflicted barbarous policies of racial slavery. The masses, having no wish to exchange the dictatorship of Stalin for the savagery of Hitler, fought fiercely to defend the material gains of the October revolution. The Red Army rallied and became the decisive force in the defeat of German fascism.
By 1944 the Allied imperialists were confronted with the sweeping advance of the Red Army across Eastern Europe towards Berlin. It was in a desperate attempt to contain this advance—which otherwise could have reached the English Channel—that the USA and Britain launched their own invasion of Europe from the West, finally meeting the Red Army on the Elbe.
As the master of all Eastern Europe, including half of Germany, Russia had now to be reckoned with as a world power.
By a cruel irony of history, the victory over Fascism, paid for with the blood and heroism of millions of workers and peasants, served to strengthen enormously the Stalinist dictatorship.
After Hitler’s invasion of Russia, the Kremlin bureaucracy had swung back to its policy of seeking collaboration with the Allied imperialists—and persisted in it even after the defeat of Hitler. At the end of the war the British and American imperialists, faced with Russian power, found it expedient to come to terms with Stalin. At top-level meetings at Yalta and Potsdam, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill reached secret agreements dividing the world into ‘spheres of influence’ between the great powers.
In Eastern Europe the collapse of Nazism and its collaborators under the advance of the Red Army had meant the flight of the old ruling class. In these countries the Russian bureaucracy was conceded hegemony by the imperialist powers. The nominal ‘coalition’ governments formed there by Stalin resembled Popular Fronts. But effective state power was in the hands of the Red Army and not of the bourgeoisie. In all the tries of Eastern Europe the social basis of capitalism had been shattered completely.
In country after country economic collapse could only be prevented by the nationalisation of the major means of production and the establishment of a planned economy.
Consequently, states were constructed in the image of Moscow—not workers’ democracies in the manner of Lenin’s Moscow, but totalitarian states modelled on Stalin’s Moscow of 1945.
Through the guns of the Red Army, the Russian regime ensured that the new workers’ states were deformed from the outset, presided over by a bureaucratic caste, obedient to the Kremlin, and totally excluding any form of control by the working class itself.
In Western Europe the peculiar course of the war had the effect of strengthening the hold of Stalinism on the workers’ movement.
The bourgeoisie in the countries invaded by Nazi Germany had collaborated with the occupation forces, and even relied on the guns of the German army for maintaining ‘law and order’. Now with the defeat of Fascism, the ground was cut from under their feet.
As a result of military service and wartime resistance against Nazi occupation, workers in many countries were armed. In the wake of the war, strikes, factory occupations and armed workers’ militias created the possibility of proletarian rule in Italy, Greece and France.
The stage was once again set for social revolution. A victory for workers’ democracy in just one of these important countries of Europe would have sparked fires across the face of the world.
But in every case the position and prestige of the degenerated Communist Parties had been enormously enhanced in the course of the war. Expectations of a revolutionary lead by the CP’s had been aroused both by their role in the underground resistance against Fascism and, above all, by the titanic war effort of the Soviet Union.
These hopes, however, were cruelly disappointed. The Russian bureaucracy, faced with the need to maintain control over the Russian working class, had nothing to gain and everything to lose from promoting the workers’ revolution internationally.
Stalin agreed with Roosevelt and Churchill that Western Europe should remain in the hands of imperialism. This agreement, entirely in the spirit of present-day ‘detente’, ensured the delay of the socialist revolution in the West for a whole generation more.
In Greece, the armed resistance movement of the workers and peasants, led by the Communist Party, had the capacity to take state power in 1944-5. Instead, following Stalin’s orders, the CP capitulated to imperialism, seeking to form a ‘broad patriotic’ government, and leaving the state machine in the hands of pro-fascist elements.
British imperialism took advantage of this situation to launch a bloody assault on the workers’ and peasants’ movement. In this they correctly counted on Stalin washing his hands of the fate of the Greek revolution.
In the civil war which followed (1946-8) Stalin gave no military support to the masses fighting British (and later US) imperialism. Over a million Greek workers and peasants lost their lives.
Also in France, Italy and elsewhere, Stalinism needed to disarm the workers and head off their movement in order to hand back power to the capitalist class.
In France, the Communist leader Thorez arrived back from Moscow with instructions to the workers to halt their strike movement, to surrender their arms and support a coalition government of the Communist Party with capitalist parties. Also at this time Thorez told a leader of the Vietnamese resistance that he “ardently hoped to see the French flag flying over every territory in the French Union” and that he “had not the slightest intention of being held responsible for a sell-out of France’s positions in Indochina.”
In Italy the defeat of Fascism in 1943-1944 meant the virtual collapse of capitalist power and the beginning of the largest popular insurrection in Italy’s history. The workers and peasants (organised in their hundreds of thousands into the armed forces of the CP-led anti-Fascist Partisans) exercised effective control in many areas of the country.
Had this insurrectionary movement been taken to its conclusion, with the establishment of a revolutionary workers’ government in Italy, the effect on the world working-class movement would have been explosive. Ordinary soldiers of the occupying Allied armies (workers in uniform) would have carried the flames of revolution back to every corner of America, Britain—and South Africa as well. But this was not to be. In Italy, too, the CP leadership—on the instructions of Moscow—supported the disarming of the workers and peasants, and handed back power to the capitalist class in the form of a coalition government of bourgeois, social-democratic and Communist ministers.
Thus, misled yet again by the leaders of the Communist parties as well as the leaders of the social-democracy (the latter had remained unswerving throughout in their support for capitalism) the workers were compelled to surrender to the capitalist class the power they had gained. Nor were the CP leaders rewarded as they had hoped for their collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Once they had served their purpose of bringing the working class back under capitalist control, they were thrown contemptuously out of the governments in Italy and France.
Nothing was left of the Third International which, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, had stood out as a lighthouse to the peoples of the world, showing the way to the transformation of society. Its revolutionary traditions were now preserved only by tiny forces, compelled to swim against the stream for a whole historical period.
The official end of the International had come in 1943, when Stalin dissolved the Comintern—by decree and without debate—on the eve of the revolutionary upsurge at the end of the war. This cynical act was intended as a sign to Stalin’s imperialist ‘allies’, Roosevelt and Churchill, that the Russian bureaucracy had finally abandoned all thought of revolution in the West. It was tamely endorsed by all the national CPs.
In the heartland of imperialism, the United States of America, the Communist Party actually dissolved itself in 1944, at Moscow’s urging. For as Browder, its General Secretary, explained: “Capitalism and Communism have begun to march together towards the peaceful society of tomorrow”!
He claimed that the objective of “continued national unity” after the war required laying aside the idea of class struggle and cooperating with all sections of the population—including the monopoly capitalists—for the benefit of the nation as a whole! In such a post-war world of class harmony and peaceful relations between capitalist and ‘socialist’ nations, he declared, there would be no need for the Communist Party.
In other CPs, including South Africa’s, a similar course of action was seriously debated.
These were the political conditions which set the scene for the post-war development of capitalism. The rule of the capitalist class in the West had been saved by the combined efforts of the social-democratic and Communist Party leaderships.
Thus secured, the capitalist class could turn its attention to the economic reconstruction of Europe and with it, a new cycle of capitalist expansion throughout the world.