In the mighty class movements that followed the October revolution, the overthrow of capitalism throughout Europe was on the agenda.
The victory of the working class in the developed countries, in turn, would provide a basis for overcoming Russia’s crippling economic backwardness, and remove the threat of imperialist attack.
International organisation was essential to unite the workers moving into action in the different countries, and direct the struggle against the worldwide capitalist alliance.
The Second International had ceased to exist as an instrument of the workers’ struggle for power (see box). A new International needed to be built.
The Crisis of Working Class Leadership
Prior to 1914, the Second International was committed to oppose imperialist war by every means, including the general strike. Yet, when war was declared, the vast majority of its leadership came out in active or passive support of their “own” governments.
What were the root causes of this shattering betrayal?
The Second International was formed in 1889 as a federation of (mainly European) social-democratic parties, in general subscribing to Marxism. It was built during a period of imperialist expansion and generally stable growth in the developed capitalist countries. This had a decisive effect on its character.
Important struggles were fought under the banner of the International. Major concessions were won – democratic rights, better wages, better conditions. A skilled and relatively well-paid “aristocracy of labour” was created in the process. Out of this layer, increasingly, the leadership was drawn, together with intellectuals who decided to build their careers in the labour movement.
Remote from the workers’ daily struggles, these leaders became increasingly comfortable in well-paid jobs as parliamentarians or party and trade union officials. Inevitably their ideas became affected by their surroundings. Their general mood was summed up in the theory of “reformism” put forward by the German social-democrat, E. Bernstein – the idea that capitalism could gradually be “reformed” out of existence through peaceful, parliamentary methods.
This meant that the struggle to overthrow the capitalist state could quietly be pushed into the background. The “struggle” could be led from the soft benches of parliament – at a high salary, paid by the state!
The reformist tendency assumed more and more monstrous proportions. Inevitably, it led to increasing collaboration with the capitalist class. Labour leaders became more and more involved with various organs of the state. Public positions gave them new privileges.
Through all these pressures a nationalist outlook was cultivated. The outlook of the social-democratic leaders was narrowed more and more to the institutions of national and local government. Their links with the international movement were reduced to mere sentiment and phrases.
The catastrophic consequences of this gradual process of political degeneration broke to the surface in August 1914, when the reformists almost unanimously came out on the side of the capitalist state. The workers’ struggle to overthrow capitalism, from this point onward, would be openly and furiously opposed by the reformist leaders.
A historic letter was sent out early in 1919 to the organisations of the revolutionary workers in different countries. It was signed by Lenin and Trotsky on behalf of the Russian Communist Party (the new name of the Bolshevik Party) and by workers’ leaders from other countries. It invited the organisations to a congress to be held in Moscow, and explained the purpose as follows:
The Congress must establish a common fighting front for the purpose of maintaining permanent coordination and systematic leadership of the movement, a centre of the communist international, subordinating the interests of the movement in each country to the common interest of the international revolution.Quoted in Degras, Volume 1
At this congress, held from 2 to 6 March, 1919, the Communist (Third) International was formed.
From the “Platform of the Communist International” Adopted at the Founding Conference
The imperialist system is breaking down. Ferment in the colonies, ferment in the former dependent small nations, insurrections of the proletariat, victorious proletarian revolutions in some countries, dissolution of the imperialist armies… – this is the state of affairs throughout the world today…
There is only one force that can save [humanity], and that is the proletariat… It must create genuine order, communist order. It must destroy the rule of capital, make war impossible, abolish State frontiers, change the entire world into one cooperative community…
The growth of the revolutionary movement in all countries, the danger that the alliance of capitalist states will strangle the danger that the alliances of capitalist states will strangle this movement…, finally, the absolute necessity of coordination of proletarian action – all this must lead to the foundation of a truly revolutionary, truly proletarian communist international.
The International… will embody the mutual aid of the proletariat of different countries… [It] will support the exploited colonial peoples in their struggles against imperialism, in order to promote the final downfall of the imperialist world system.
The inspiring advances by the working class in 1918-19, however, marked only the beginning of a drawn-out period of revolution and counter-revolution. In the ebb and flow of class battles flaring up across Europe, the workers were unable to hold on to their early gains.
Two main factors combined to produce a series of defeats: firstly, the deliberate treachery of the social-democratic leaders; secondly, the immaturity of the revolutionary currents in the workers’ movement outside of Russia – in other words, the weakness of genuine Marxist leadership even in the parties of the Third International.
In Germany, large sections of workers still had illusions in the reformist SPD leadership. In November 1918 the reformists, headed by Noske and Scheidemann, were pushed into government as conscious agents of counter-revolution.
Their strategy was to persuade the working class to accept the authority of the “democratic” capitalist parliament. Then they rebuilt the armed forces of the capitalist state to break-up the workers’ councils.
Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, the outstanding revolutionary leaders in the German workers’ movement, were murdered in January 1919 in the military counter-revolution unleashed by their former party comrades.
But the German capitalists remained weak, and the workers movement was far from crushed. Many more battles would have to be fought before the question of power would be settled for any length of time.
The membership of the Communist International (“Comintern”) leaped explosively upward. Fifty-one national sections, with a total membership of 2.8 million (only 550,000 in the USSR) were represented at the Third Congress in 1921.
Many different political tendencies were drawn into the International, ranging from “centrism” (i.e. in between Marxism and reformism: revolutionary in words but vacillating in practice) to ultra-leftism.
In Hungary, it was the ultra-left mistakes of the Communist leadership that led to the defeat of the Soviet republic. Refusing to divide the land amongst the peasantry, insisting dogmatically on collectivising the landlords’ estates, they were unable to win the support of the peasant masses and unify the country.
When counter-revolution struck in the form of an invasion by Romanian and Czechoslovak armies, the peasants were unwilling to fight for a government which refused their most basic demand.
In August 1919, after four months of heroic resistance, the workers’ republic fell. The workers’ movement was subjected to a hideous bloodbath in the reactionary terror that followed.
In Italy, it was the centrist spinelessness of the workers’ “revolutionary” leaders that made victory impossible.
A massive wave of factory occupations in 1920 created a revolutionary situation, with soviets controlling the factories and Red Guards defending them. The capitalist state was paralysed. The task was to mobilise and arm the workers for the conquest of power.
The “Marxist” leaders of the Italian Socialist Party were forced by pressure from below to profess support for the Comintern. In fact they were divided, and even the “maximalist” (left) wing declined to lead the struggle. The initiative was allowed to pass to the reformists, who in turn handed power back to the capitalists – as usual, in return for some temporary concessions.
In France, in Ireland, in Britain, the Netherlands and many other countries the capitalist class managed to regain control with the assistance of the reformist labour leaders. In every case, this was possible only in the absence of a developed Marxist leadership able to seize the enormous opportunities and isolate the reformists, as the Bolsheviks had done in Russia.
By 1921 the workers’ struggle internationally was in a state of temporary ebb. A peculiar and dangerous correlation of forces was emerging: on the one hand, the capitalist class consolidating its position internationally; on the other hand, the Russian workers’ state isolated and exhausted.