The fight for a socialist world

November 7, 2008

Russian workers demonstrated to the world that workers' power was possible after their successful revolution in 1917. But if the new workers' government was to survive, the revolutionary movement had to spread to other countries.

In 1919, revolutionaries--led in large part by members of the Russian party--sought to create an international communist movement committed to furthering workers' revolution, one that would build an uncompromising opposition to a world of exploitation and war. This was the founding of the Third Communist International, or the Comintern.

As British socialist Duncan Hallas wrote in his book The Comintern, "Internationalism is the bedrock of socialism, not simply or mainly for sentimental reasons but because capitalism has created a world economy which can be transformed only on a world scale." Here, with permission, we print an excerpt from The Comintern.

"Sweeping aside the halfheartedness, lies, and corruptions of the outlived official Socialist Parties, we Communists, united in the Third International, consider ourselves the direct continuation of the heroic endeavors and martyrdom of a long line of revolutionary generations from Babeuf to Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg....Our task is to generalize the revolutionary experiences of the working class, to cleanse the movement of the disintegrating admixture of opportunism and social patriotism, to mobilize the forces of all genuinely revolutionary parties of the world working class, and thereby facilitate and hasten the victory of the communist revolution throughout the world."
--Manifesto of the First Congress of the Third International, 1919

MARCH 4, 1919. Thirty-five delegates meeting in the Kremlin voted, with one abstention, to constitute the Third or Communist International--soon to be known as the Comintern. It was not a particularly weighty or representative gathering. Only the five delegates from the Russian Communist Party (Bukharin, Chicherin, Lenin, Trotsky, and Zinoviev) represented a party that was both a mass organization and a genuinely revolutionary one.

Cover image: The Comintern

Stange of the Norwegian Labor Party (DNA) came from a mass party, but, as events were to prove, the DNA was far from revolutionary in practice. Eberlein of the newly formed Communist Party of Germany (KPD) represented a real revolutionary organization, but one that was still only a few thousand strong. Most of the other delegates represented very little, often nothing, since their presence in Moscow was accidental.

On these grounds, Eberlein, acting on the instructions of the KPD central committee, wished to confine the meeting to preliminary work, to the adoption of a provisional program and so on. Western Europe, he noted, was entirely unrepresented. The common view that what the Germans really feared was undue Russian dominance is probably correct but this argument was not openly advanced.

The delegates took it for granted that an "International" without some real mass support in a number of countries was nonsense. Zinoviev, for the Russians, argued that mass support existed in fact. The weakness of many of the delegations was accidental, he said. "We have a victorious workers' revolution in a great country.... You have in Germany a party marching to power, which in a few months will establish a working-class government. And are we still to delay? No one will understand it."

That the socialist revolution was an immediate prospect in central Europe, above all, in Germany, was doubted by none of the delegates. Eberlein himself had said, "Unless all the signs are deceptive, the German proletariat is facing the last decisive struggle. However difficult it may be, the prospects for communism are favorable." Lenin, the most sober and calculating of revolutionaries, had said in his opening speech that "not only in Russia but in the most developed capitalist countries of Europe, Germany for example, civil war is a fact...the world revolution is beginning and growing in intensity everywhere."

This was not fantasy. In November 1918, the German Empire, until then the most powerful state in Europe, had collapsed under the impact of a mass revolution. Six People's Commissars, three of them Social Democrats and three Independent Social Democrats, replaced the Kaiser's government. Workers' and soldiers' councils had sprung up throughout Germany and wielded effective power. True, the Social Democratic leaders, who dominated these councils, bent all their efforts to reconstituting the old capitalist state power under a new "republican" guise. That was all the more reason for creating a revolutionary International of socialist organizations with a strong centralized leadership to guide and support the struggle for a Soviet Germany--one in which the reins of power would be held by workers' councils or soviets, to use their Russian name.

And that struggle, in spite of the bloody suppression of the Spartakus rising in January 1919, appeared to be going forward. "From January to May 1919, with offshoots reaching into the height of the summer, a bloody civil war was waged in Germany..." A month after the Moscow meeting, the Bavarian Soviet Republic was proclaimed.

The other great central European power, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had ceased to exist. The revolutionary risings of late 1918 had pulled it apart. Its successor states themselves were in varying degrees of revolutionary ferment. In German-speaking Austria, the only effective armed force was the Volkswehr (People's Army), controlled by the Social Democrats. In Hungary, a Soviet Republic was formed on March 21. All the new or reconstituted states, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, even Poland, were unstable.

The role of the leaders of socialist parties in all these countries was crucial. These parties called themselves "Social Democrats." The Russian Bolsheviks had originally been the consistently revolutionary wing of the Russian Social Democratic Party. But the other Social Democratic parties in Europe were now far from revolutionary. The majority in fact supported counterrevolution in the name of "democracy." Most of them claimed to be, indeed once had been, Marxists and internationalists. They were now a major prop of capitalism, using socialist phrases and the credit established by their years of agitation to prevent the establishment of workers' power, or to prevent its consolidation where it was temporarily established.

Their attempt to reconstitute the Second International by a meeting at Berne in Switzerland was advanced as a further, urgent, reason for proclaiming the Third. As early as 1914, Lenin had written, "the Second International is dead, overcome by opportunism...long live the Third International." Now, eighteen months after the October Revolution in Russia, the call for a new International could be turned into a reality. It had taken five years, years of war, deepening social crisis, massive workers' struggles, and revolutions, to create the conditions necessary for a real revolutionary International to be born.

Social democracy in 1914

"If the outbreak of war threatens, it is the duty of the workers and their parliamentary representatives in the countries involved, with the aid of the International Socialist Bureau, to exert all their efforts to prevent the war by means of coordinated action. If war nevertheless breaks out, it is their duty to work for its speedy end, and to exploit with all their forces the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the population and to hasten the overthrow of capitalist class rule."
--Resolution of the Stuttgart Congress of the Second International, 1907

THE SECOND International had been founded at a congress in Paris that opened, symbolically, on July 14, 1889--the centenary of the storming of the Bastille, which had marked the outbreak of the great French Revolution. It proclaimed itself the heir of the International Working Men's Association (1864-72) in which Karl Marx himself had played a leading role.

The Salle Petrelle, where the congress took place, was festooned with red cloth, reinforced by red flags. Above the rostrum, in gold letters, shone the closing words of the Communist Manifesto, "Working men of all countries unite!" An inscription in the foreground announced the central aim in the fight for working-class emancipation: "Political and Economic Expropriation of the Capitalist Class..." The spirit of the French [hosts] was admirably expressed on a poster at the rostrum..."In the name of the Paris of June 1848, and of March, April and May 1871, of the France of Babeuf, Blanqui and Varlin, greetings to the Socialist workers of both worlds." After the congress was over the delegates organized a march in honor of the revolutionary pioneers.

Founded under these seeming revolutionary auspices, the Second International served as a focus around which grew some large workers' parties which commonly took as their title the name "social democratic party"--a term which Marx himself had disliked, preferring "communist." They were not by any means the only workers' parties, but they were the ones that dominated the workers' movement in the years up to the First World War.

Social democracy, in the classical sense, had a fairly short life. The German Social Democratic Party (SPD), the model for the rest, "the pillar and example," was founded in 1875. It adopted what was then regarded as a Marxist program (the Erfurt program) in 1891. Between 1878 and 1890, the SPD had been an illegal organization, proscribed by Bismarck's anti-socialist law. "At the first congress in exile (Wyden, Switzerland, 1880), it unanimously voted to strike from its program the clause stating that it would pursue its aims by 'all legal means.' During this time of troubles, the urban working class became increasingly alienated from the state."

This was demonstrated by voting figures. The SPD was outlawed, but socialist candidates (in fact SPD nominees) were able to contest elections. On a restricted suffrage, they polled, collectively, some 300,000 votes in 1881 and one and a half million in 1890. By 1912, the party, now a legally tolerated but socially outlawed organization, polled four and a quarter million votes (34 percent of the total poll) and elected 110 deputies to the Reichstag (the German federal parliament). In 1914, the SPD had 1,086,000 card-holding members.

In France, the unified socialist party (SFIO: French Section of the Workers' International), founded in 1905, gained 102 seats in the elections held early in 1914. A year earlier, the Italian Socialist Party (PSI) had gained a quarter of the vote cast and 78 deputies. The Austro-Hungarian party had won more than a million votes and 82 deputies. From Scandinavia to the Balkans, Marxist social democratic parties gained members, votes, and deputies. Even in the U.S. the Socialist Party (founded in 1901) had, by 1912, 125,000 members and won 800,000 votes, having "56 mayors, 160 councilmen and 145 aldermen...eight foreign-language and five English dailies.... In addition, there were 262 English and 36 foreign language weeklies." Weaker but significant movements were growing up everywhere from Britain and Chile to Spain, Switzerland, and Uruguay, all of them affiliated to the Second International and apparently committed to the socialist reconstruction of society and to uncompromising opposition to "national unity" and war.

It was an illusion. There were considerable differences between the various social democratic parties but basically they were pseudo-revolutionary parties (the Australian and British Labor Parties and the Socialist Party in the U.S. were exceptional in lacking Marxist rhetoric and revolutionary pretensions). They combined an uncompromising verbal hostility to capitalism with a practical activity that was essentially confined to winning members and votes. Because they were excluded from any share of state power, and because they had an ideology that rejected all the values of official society, the social democrats created, to some degree, a whole world of their own. "No German town was without its social democratic daily paper, its consumer cooperative, its workers' sports and cultural associations."

This impressive apparatus had become an end in itself. There was no real perspective that the achievement of socialism would need a struggle for power. Socialism would come inevitably, as a result of the contradictions of capitalism, it was constantly stressed. Confrontation with the forces of the state, or even the employers, was avoided wherever possible. As a political force, social democracy was essentially passive. Though some of the parties, notably the Belgians and the Austrians, had been willing to use--and had used--mass political strikes, this was for the strictly limited purpose of winning or extending the right to vote. Most of the parties would not even go as far as this.

In August 1914, the illusion was destroyed. Social democracy collapsed. The combination of extreme verbal radicalism with political passivity in practice was no longer possible for mass parties in the warring states. The party leaders were faced with a simple choice: Maintain their political position, their internationalism, which meant opposing the war, and face a return to illegality, persecution, prison, and the seizure of their massive assets. Or abandon all they had stood for in principle, support "their own" imperialist state and gain an honored and increasingly important role in capitalist society. They capitulated and became recruiting sergeants for the First World War. The importance of this collapse cannot be overstressed. Since August 4, 1914, the social democratic parties have acted within the workers' movement as agents for the ruling class.

There were exceptions. The Italians and Americans were not compelled to choose immediately, since their ruling classes remained for a while neutral in the war. The Scandinavians and the Dutch were in this position until 1919. On the other hand, the Serbs, heroically, stood their ground and were subjected to a murderous prosecution. The Bulgarian majority party, which had split from its right-wing minority in 1903, opposed the war. In Russia, the Bolsheviks, and even some of the Mensheviks, refused to support the tsarist war machine. Everywhere else, those who opposed the war were in a minority.

Karl Liebknecht, the SPD deputy who at first stood alone against the war in the German Reichstag, wrote: "Every people's main enemy is in their own country! The main enemy of the German people is in Germany. German imperialism, the German war party and German secret diplomacy--here in our own land is the enemy that the German people must combat. We must wage this political struggle alongside the proletariat of other countries, as they struggle against their own imperialists.... Down with the warmongers on both sides of the border.... The main enemy is at home."

But the "social patriots," as their opponents soon came to call the social democrats who supported the war, were able to claim that, in 1914, they had the support of the mass of politically conscious workers. It was true. Trotsky noted that in Vienna "the patriotic enthusiasm of the masses in Austria-Hungary seemed especially surprising."

What was it that drew them? he asked.

What sort of an idea? The national idea? But Austria-Hungary was the very negation of any national idea. No, the moving force was something different. The people whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hopelessness are many.... The alarm of mobilization breaks into their lives like a promise.... Changes still more incredible are in store.... For better or worse? For the better of course--what can seem worse than "normal" conditions?...War affects everybody and those who are oppressed and deceived by life consequently feel that they are on an equal footing with the rich and powerful."

Similarly in London, Paris, and Berlin, there was mass enthusiasm for the war.

But revolutionaries who cannot withstand temporary popular hatred, as well as official persecution, are worthless. The pioneers of social democracy had withstood both in their time. Why did they betray their own past?

One explanation is that they did not, that after the Stuttgart congress of 1907, the major parties moved rapidly to the right, toward support for "their own" imperialist ruling classes. Of course it is true that opportunist trends were growing inside these parties, that active right-wing tendencies, recovering from their defeat at the turn of the century on the issues of cooperation with the "progressive" bourgeois parties and participation in "progressive" bourgeois governments, were raising their heads again.

None of this, however, can weaken the force of the accusation of betrayal, can alter the fact of betrayal. For the Extraordinary Congress of Basel, held in 1912 specifically to deal with the increasing danger of imperialist war, unanimously reiterated and strengthened the Stuttgart resolution against war.

As Zinoviev, then Lenin's closest collaborator, wrote in 1916:

The Basel manifesto was written in anticipation of precisely the very Europe-wide war that has now broken out.... It laid out a program of action for the socialists of all nations. What kind of program? Does it contain the slightest suggestion that the Socialists of even one of the countries that will be dragged into the war will have to "defend the fatherland" and apply the criterion of "defensive war?" No. Not a word, not a murmur of this! You find in it an appeal to organize civil war, and references to the Paris Commune, to the 1905 Revolution, and so forth. But you will not find in it a single thing about "defensive" war. The Basel resolution was not worse, but better than that of Stuttgart. Every word in it is a slap in the face to the present tactics of the "leading" parties of the Second International."

This is substantially true. Indeed the major opposition on this issue at the successive congresses came from those such as James Keir Hardie of the British Labour Party, who wished to commit the parties of the Second International to call an immediate general strike on the outbreak of war!

Another explanation is the fatalistic character of social democratic theory. Karl Kautsky, "the pope of Marxism" and chief theoretician of the SPD, put it in these words: "The Socialist Party is a revolutionary party but not a revolution-making party. We know that our goal can be attained only through revolution. We also know that it is just as little in our power to create this revolution as it is in the power of our opponents to prevent it."13 A fine theoretical justification for passivity! The idea that socialists must win workers in struggle is entirely missing. And not by accident.

According to Marx, practice comes before theory. "In the beginning was the deed." The theory of a mass movement has material as well as intellectual roots. Near the end of his life, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, wrote, in a remarkable anticipation of the materialist conception of history: "The Methodists in every place grow diligent and frugal; consequently they increase in goods. Hence they proportionally the desire of the flesh...and in the pride of life. So, although the form of religion remains, the spirit is swiftly vanishing away."14

So it was with social democracy. A whole layer of social democrats had prospered. By 1913, the SPD and its associated trade unions owned property worth 90 million marks. To administer and control it, "the party had generated a whole category of parliamentarians, working-class bureaucrats and functionaries in the unions, the cooperatives, the party secretariats, the editorial offices of the party press.... Such people no longer lived for, but also off the working-class movement."

They had a great deal more to lose than their chains.

Lenin emphasized another fundamental material factor. "Opportunism was engendered in the course of decades by the special features in this period of the development of capitalism, when the comparatively peaceful and cultured life of a stratum of privileged working men "bourgeoisified" them, gave them crumbs from the table of their national capitalists."16 This "labor aristocracy" theory, which had earlier been developed by Marx himself in the special case of Britain, contained an important kernel of truth.

But it was to prove an oversimplification. Skilled (and "privileged") workers played an important part in the antiwar movement. That movement began to grow as the casualty lists and economic hardship grew, and both grew massively after 1915 in all the main warring states.

Nevertheless, the revolutionary left, a few "ultralefts" apart, underestimated the role of the labor bureaucracies as a distinct social layer. This is a matter to which we will return.

The rising tide

"The imperialist war is ushering in the era of the social revolution. All the objective conditions of recent times have put the workers' revolutionary mass struggle on the order of the day. It is the duty of socialists, while making every use of every means of the working class's legal struggle, to...develop the workers' revolutionary consciousness...promote and encourage any revolutionary action, and do everything possible to turn the imperialist war between peoples into a civil war...for the conquest of political power by the working class, and the realization of socialism."
--Resolution of the Zimmerwald Left, 1915

THE OUTBREAK of the world war seemed, at first, to have split the socialist movement into two parts, the "social-patriots," who were the great majority, and the "internationalists." It soon became obvious, however, that the movement was really split into three. The internationalists themselves were divided between consistent revolutionaries and what came to be called the "center."

The centrists took a pacifist or semi-pacifist position. They were against support for "their own" governments and in favor of a negotiated peace. They wanted to reconstitute international links between the socialist parties, illegally if need be in the case of the best of them, but looked back to a rebirth of the old International rather than the building of a new revolutionary International. They saw the war as a disastrous interruption of "normal" political life, not as an opportunity for socialist revolution. For them, the International was for "peacetime," for May Day speeches, not for revolutionary struggle to change the world.

In September 1915, the Italian and Swiss parties succeeded in convening a conference of antiwar socialists at Zimmerwald, near Berne in Switzerland. Both these parties were dominated by the "center." The Swiss were neutral (although both pro-French and pro-German tendencies existed in the party), and the majority of the Italians, the PSI, maintained a centrist antiwar position even after Italy's entry into the war in May 1915. Not many came to the conference. "The delegates themselves joked about the fact that half a century after the founding of the first International, it was possible to seat all the internationalists in four coaches."

At Zimmerwald, the split between the centrists and the left came into the open. As well as the two sponsoring parties there were German, French, Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, Polish, Russian, and other delegates present. By nineteen votes to twelve, the conference rejected the draft resolution submitted by Lenin that contained the call to "turn the imperialist war into a civil war." In spite of this, Lenin called the conference "the first step" and the left, including the Bolsheviks, voted for the manifesto of the majority as well as publishing their own rejected resolution. "The capitalists of all countries claim that the war serves to defend the fatherland.... They are lying," declared the manifesto.

"It is a fact that this manifesto is a step forward towards a real struggle against opportunism, towards a rupture with it," wrote Lenin. In spite of its "inconsistency and timidity," he said, "it would be sectarianism to refuse to take this step forward."18 In the atmosphere of frenzied "patriotism" which still existed in 1915, when any contact with "enemy" nationals was regarded as treason, Zimmerwald was indeed a real step forward for socialist internationalism.

At the next conference, at Kienthal (also in Switzerland) in 1916, the left took a harder line. "Every step forward taken by the international labor movement along the road mapped out by Zimmerwald shows more and more clearly the inconsistency of the position adopted by the Zimmerwald majority," declared another unsuccessful Bolshevik resolution. The Zimmerwald majority, said the resolution, "is afraid of a break with the International Socialist Bureau [the Second International's completely inactive center].... It is the social-chauvinists and Kautskyites of all countries who will undertake the task of restoring the bankrupt International Socialist Bureau. The task of socialists is to explain to the masses the inevitability of a split with those who pursue a bourgeois policy under the flag of socialism."19 This was a call for a political break not only with the right but with the fake left, those who supported pacifism and saw negotiation between the warring powers as the way to end the war.

By this time, the antiwar movements were gaining some real support. Easter 1916 saw the Dublin rising against British imperialism. Karl Liebknecht and Otto Rühle, elected as Reichstag deputies for the SPD, had broken with the SPD and were agitating in the Reichstag against the war. In May 1916, the arrest of Karl Liebknecht for treason provoked a strike by 50,000 workers in Berlin and a wave of clashes with the police. The shop stewards' movement was gaining ground in Britain.

The February 1917 revolution in Russia sparked off massive peace demonstrations in Britain as well as in Germany and Austria-Hungary. That spring the SPD split and the centrists, including the SPD Reichstag leader of 1914, Hugo Haase, and the theoretician Karl Kautsky, founded the Independent Social Democratic Party (USPD) on an antiwar program. However, the split was forced by the SPD right wing, and the antiwar platform was pacifistic, not revolutionary. The USPD was a mish-mash of reformists, centrists, and some revolutionaries. The USPD reflected growing opposition to the war among German workers; it did not lead it.

The October Revolution in Russia had an even greater effect throughout Europe. In January 1918, mass strikes developed in Austria-Hungary and Germany, strikes not for money but for peace.

It started at the factory of Manfred Weiss, in Csepel, near Budapest, by far the biggest munitions factory in Hungary....The strike spread like wild fire....By the 16th January it had reached the munitions factories of lower Austria; on the 17th all Vienna went on strike. A few days later the Berlin munitions workers followed suit, and then the engineers and many other branches of industry all over the Reich. Nowhere had the official leadership called the strike....The movement shook the Central Powers to their very foundations.

More than two million workers were involved, but the movement was contained. Like the big mutinies in the French army in 1917, it lacked a coherent revolutionary leadership.

But the mutiny of the sailors of the German High Seas fleet at Kiel on November 4, 1918, led to the collapse of Imperial Germany.

In Kiel there was only one authority--the Council of workers', sailors', and soldiers' deputies.... From Kiel the rebellion spread to Hamburg and on the night of 8th November it was learned in Berlin that it had triumphed, with little or no resistance, in Hanover, Magdeburg, Cologne, Munich, Stuttgart, Frankfurt-am-Main, Brunswick, Oldenburg, Wittenberg, and other cities.

On November 9, the especially "reliable" Fourth Regiment of Fusiliers was rushed into Berlin. It mutinied. The Kaiser fled to Holland. The German workers' and soldiers' councils were in power.

The point needs emphasizing. They were in power: no other authority in Germany disposed of an effective armed force. The betrayal of this successful movement by the leaders of the SPD (and the USPD) in the name of "democracy" now deepened the split of 1914. The issue of whether authority should lie with workers' councils or parliament was now central.

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