Founding of the Comintern - Then and Now

Model of a proposed Monument to the Third International designed 1919-20 by Vladimir Tatlin and comrades.

A century ago, from 2nd — 6th March 1919, 52 delegates, more than 40 from various political organisations outside Russia, met in Moscow.

During those five days the meeting became the First Congress of the Third International1, also known as the Communist International, abbreviated to Comintern. That event marked a key point in the development of revolutionary proletarian organisation.

The Congress took place at the moment in history where the proletariat had made its biggest challenge, before or since, to the capitalist order.

The Revolutionary Wave

Two statements by Lenin sum up the essence of the revolutionary optimism which flowed through the five day Congress. In a phonograph recording made later in March he encapsulated the vision of the Third International. “Today, the workers who have remained loyal to the cause of throwing off the yoke of capital call themselves ‘Communists.’ ... soon we shall see the victory of communism throughout the world; we shall see the foundation of the World Federative Republic of Soviets.”2

In his article on The Third International and its Place in History published in April, 1919 the revolutionary wave was concisely described. “A new era in world history has begun. Mankind3 is throwing off the last form of slavery: capitalist, or wage, slavery. By emancipating himself from slavery, man is for the first time advancing to real freedom.”4

In Russia, the Soviets had taken power in November 1917. By March 1919 they maintained their control in those areas of Russia that they had been forced to successfully defend militarily. However, it is crystal clear from the contributions during the Congress that working class power in Russia was seen by all the participants as only a temporary step in the establishment of worldwide socialism. In 1919 revolutionaries had good cause to believe that the process was moving towards a successful outcome.

Strikes and mutinies had brought an end to the slaughter of the First World War. The Kaiser had been removed from power in Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire had collapsed. In many parts of Europe and beyond, Councils of Workers and sometimes Soldiers and Sailors had appeared, at least partly mirroring the Russian Soviets. Germany was seen by all as the crucial next step in the world Revolution. Although we can now see the disastrous long-term consequences of the ill-prepared "Spartakist uprising" which had been bloodily beaten in January, Councils still existed and working class combativity remained high.

In the weeks after the Congress the working class struggle continued to gain victories. The May issue of Communist International summarised, "The Third International already has as its members three Soviet republics — in Hungary, Russia and Bavaria."5 In their May Day Manifesto, the Comintern declared "The flames of proletarian revolution are spreading all over Europe. It is invincible ... The last hour of our oppressors has struck ... in 1919 the great Communist International was born. In 1920 the great International Soviet Republic will come to birth."

Points of Clarity

The Congress's vision reflected the reality of the incredibly sharp and undisguised class struggles that were taking place. A century later the inheritors of the Congress exist in an epoch where revolutionary consciousness has been all but buried and the combativity of our class is at a far lower level. Yet, for present-day Communists the texts of the Congress contain many points which provide remarkably clear insights that are often distorted by erstwhile "Leninists".

It is worth highlighting three such examples.

We have already touched on the core shared understanding regarding the necessary international nature of the proletarian revolution. The earlier quote from Lenin about the "World Federative Republic of Soviets" is clear evidence. Similarly the quote from the Comintern magazine looking towards "the great International Soviet Republic". Ideas such as "Socialism in One Country" are totally alien to any of the discussions that take place. Lest there be any doubt, it is worth repeating the final declaration from the Platform adopted by the meeting. The last section is entitled "The Road to Victory" and is clear that victory means a communist world: "Long live the international republic of proletarian councils."6

Secondly, time and again, we have to confront the grotesque political contortions of capitalism's left-wing whose followers act as cheerleaders for all manner of inter-capitalist disputes. In particular, they will, literally and metaphorically, wave the flag for small national states and would-be states. Such positions stem from the confused and increasingly counter-revolutionary policies of the Comintern from 1921 onwards. They have nothing in common with the proletarian internationalism of the First Congress. There socialists had built on lessons from the minority who had struggled against the "Great War" and strands such as the Zimmerwald Left7 who had argued to turn the imperialist war into civil war.

In the words of Boris Reinstein, of the U.S. Socialist Labor Party8; "... in our century there can be no wars that are not rooted in capitalist competition ... the proletariat not only does not have the duty, it does not even have the right to support its government, even in so-called defensive wars. There is only one war that the proletariat is duty-bound to support, and that is social war, the social revolution."9

A third distortion, spread by both friends and foes of the proletarian revolution, is that the final aim of Communists is a proletarian state. In 1919, as struggles raged, revolutionaries had not lost sight of the future of humanity in a stateless world. At the Congress, Lenin presented Theses on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat. Thesis 20 includes the formulation, "... soviet or proletarian democracy ... by enlisting the mass organizations of working people in constant and unfailing participation in the management of the state, it immediately begins to prepare the complete withering away of any state."10

This wording was not accidental nor an attempt to mislead. Later that year, leading Russian Communists, Bukharin and Preobrazhensky, wrote The ABC of Communism, a core "training manual" for revolutionary cadres. There they wrote "as soon as they [remnants of the exploiters] have been trained to work and have become workers like everyone else, the pressure upon them will be relaxed and the dictatorship of the proletariat will gradually disappear". Also "... we must never cease to make it perfectly clear that the extension of rights will ultimately be given, and will be given all the sooner, in proportion as there comes a speedier end to the attempts made by the exploiters to overthrow communism. In this manner the proletarian State will gradually die out, and will undergo transformation into a Stateless communist society, wherein the division into classes will have completely disappeared."11

An Imperfect Process

The Congress, in common with any moment in the history of class struggle, was and could only be, in today's language, "work in progress". The fact that the revolutionaries had no International Party in place at the start of the struggles undoubtedly hampered their ability to guide the process towards a successful final onslaught against the bourgeois order.

The Second Congress, held a year later, was more representative of the forces that had rallied to, and were taking steps to organise as a result of, the revolutionary wave. It also has to be recognised that by 1920 the tide had begun to turn against the revolution and the start of the future degeneration of the Comintern was evident.

At the founding Congress the absence of an effective revolutionary party had already shown its effect in Gemany. There the revolutionary elements in the Spartakusbund had, until the last days of 1918, refused to draw a clear line between themselves and initially the social patriotic SPD and then the vacillating USPD. The representative of the newly founded KPD (German Communist Party) at the Congress was Max Albert (aka Friedrich Eberlein). Albert presented the same indecisive attitude at the Congress, arguing that it was premature to declare the Third International. It was only with the arrival of delegates during the course of the five days that the prevarication was overcome.

Attendance was also unavoidably restricted to those who were able to be present in Moscow while the wars waged by the White armies and their imperialist backers still raged and the area controlled by the Soviets endured a blockade imposed by the imperialist powers. This partly accounts for the absence of delegates from areas where significant class struggles were taking place such as Italy or Spain.

It is also indisputable that the selection of those attending the Conference reflected the state of flux amongst revolutionaries. In many of the national territories, both those present at the Congress and those that were not, the process of organisational definition was far from complete. Many Communists who supported the revolutionary wave were still organising as fractions and tendencies within a range of organisations. For example, the US SLP that Reinstein was notionally delegated from would split with only part of its left wing joining the Third International. In contrast, the two representatives from Switzerland represented different fractions. Platten was listed as representing the opposition within the Swiss Social Democratic Party while Leonie Kascher was delegated from the Swiss Communist Group.

Despite the early stage of development of the territorial organisations, the Congress was able to agree on initial points of political definition. Point 4 of the Platform adopted by the Congress made clear the necessary separation between Communists and the other strands that had existed in the former Second International. A section of the meeting was devoted to analysis of a conference held in Bern the previous month. At that meeting the social patriots who had sided with the national bourgeoisies gathered to breathe life into the corpse of the Second International.

The opening words of the congress session were spoken by the Swiss revolutionary, Fritz Platten. Referring to the bureau of the Second International, Platten makes clear "As socialists with a revolutionary communist perspective we understood very clearly that we could not tolerate any further relations with such people ... For us the Second International is dead."12

Zinoviev was the second speaker in that session who again made the position clear: "... the Second International became a tool of the international bourgeoisie ... we must found a Third International. ...The Yellow International of Bern and the Red International that we founded yesterday are now locked in single combat."13

If the Congress was absolutely clear about the Parties of the Yellow International, the approach to the other key reformist element, the Trade Unions, was treated with a great deal more caution and less clarity. Albert presented the decision to not refer to the Trade Unions in the platform. That decision was explained on the basis that national variations did not allow a unified approach. He cited a spectrum of examples. These ranged from the situation in Russia, where Trade Unions had allied themselves with Soviet Power to the situation in Germany, where "... the unions have been completely shoved aside and ... all economic struggles are being waged without the unions and indeed against them."14

Point 4 of the Platform also reflected the reality that elements such as many IWW members in North America had rallied to the banner of Communist revolution. It stated "... a bloc is needed with the forces in the revolutionary workers' movement who, although not part of the Socialist Party, now for the most part support the proletarian dictatorship in the form of council power. Certain forces in the syndicalist movement are an example of this."15

During the next two years revolutionaries regrouped to form Communist Parties in many national territories. Tragically, however, by the end of that process and the Third Congress in 1921, the revolutionary wave was clearly ebbing. By that stage there were already pressures on Communist Parties to act as local agents for the Russian state rather than advocates of working class independence and international revolution.

Worldwide Proletarian Struggle

The documents of the First Congress are permeated with hope for a Communist world. As the meeting assembled, the revolutionary wave was creating Soviet republics in the heart of Europe. The delegates were not yet fully aware of the class struggles that were erupting elsewhere in the world. In summary, for "the plutocratic press and plutocratic politicians ... it appeared as a gigantic upseething of the Abyss which had carried the frontiers of the Bolshevik revolution to Milan, Barcelona, Glasgow, Belfast, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Winnipeg, Buenos Aires and Sydney, as well as to Berlin, Munich, Vienna and Budapest."16

The quote from Mitchell shows that the Congress was meeting at a historic juncture. Significant sections of the proletariat were fighting for their own interests and in so doing revealed that these go well beyond national boundaries. In such circumstances, there was ample justification for not only a hope, but indeed an expectation that the destruction of world capitalism was imminent.

A Crucial Congress

In 1848 the industrial proletariat was still in its infancy with a significant presence in only limited areas of the world. Anticipating the revolutionary upsurge of that year, Marx and Engels described the emerging revolutionary potential for the proletariat to become capitalism's grave diggers. That is the significance of the declaration that "A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of Communism", the opening words of the Communist Manifesto. In reality, the revolutions of that year resulted in the increased control of the bourgeoisie which enabled capitalism to develop more freely in its existing heartlands and better prepare to extend to the rest of the world. That outcome in no way devalues the Manifesto as the starting point for those committed to the proletarian revolution.

There are certain parallels with the declarations of the 1919 Congress. They emerged from the living experience and struggles of the class, both reflecting and influencing their course. The defeat of the revolutionary struggles has come at an enormous cost to generations of proletarians, the vast majority of humanity.

Despite its imperfections, very largely unavoidable, the 1919 Congress is the starting point for revolutionary praxis today.

The revolutionary wave was arguably at its peak around March 1919 and the next few months. Sadly, the power of capital, with the essential support of the reformist "Social Democratic" parties, reasserted itself outside the RSFSR. Left isolated, with its productive capacity shattered, war and famine rampant and many of the best Communists dead, capitalism rapidly reasserted itself within the territory of RSFSR/Soviet Union.17

100 Years Later

The Stalinist and Trotskyist defenders of the Soviet Union's state capitalist system and the mainstream "free market" propagandists both pretend that the horrors of exploitation, alienation and oppression in the Soviet Union and its satellites flowed directly from the revolutionary struggles that gave birth to the Comintern. The documents of the First Congress prove beyond a shadow of doubt that the reality was far different.

The 1919 Congress took place against a backdrop of major sections of the working class challenging the entirety of the capitalist system. These were truly "Days of Hope".18 We now know that the victorious struggles which promised an imminent Communist future were short lived. By the mid 1920s the revolutionary wave had entirely ebbed away. Soviets existed in name only and official Communist parties had transformed into support mechanisms for the Soviet Union where capitalist restoration was proceeding inexorably with the party/state becoming the lead agent in generating and benefiting from state capitalism.

In Revolutionary Perspectives 9 we published the grimly prescient writings of Karl Radek published in April 1918. "If the Russian revolution is crushed by the bourgeois counter-revolution, it will be reborn from its ashes like the Phoenix; but if it loses its socialist character, and by this disappoints the working masses, this blow will have ten times more terrible consequences for the future of the Russian and international revolution."

Radek's forecast has been fully confirmed. The resurgence of capitalism in Russia and its survival in every other part of the world has produced a century of unprecedented wars and human made disasters. In 2019 we see a situation where capitalism has been in systemic crisis for the last half century and has imposed famine, unbearable hardships and "wars without end" on whole areas of the world. The drive to restore profitability and the inter-capitalist rivalry at the heart of the system point towards even more devastating ecological destruction coupled with the horrors of global warfare.

The horrific consequences of imperialism cannot be willed away. As capitalism drags humanity closer and closer to destruction the warning in the Communist Manifesto becomes more and more valid. The motor force of history since the most primitive times has been the struggle between classes. The prognosis is stark, struggles between classes, such as that between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat end "either in a revolutionary reconstitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes."19

The alternative of "Socialism or Barbarism" has never been plainer.

Compared to 1919, our class's response to the horrors of capitalism is sporadic and isolated. Communists, the most class conscious protagonists of class struggle, refuse to become passive observers of capitalist horrors.

The Internationalist Communist Tendency continues the patient but crucial work of regrouping forces to help lay the basis for the future International Party. We are not that Party, but we are for that Party. We appeal to those who share our perspective to work with us.

We salute the spirit of the 1919 Congress. Not passively as academics, but recognising the need of the working class to forge a tool to liberate itself. Without hesitation, we call on fellow Internationalists to join us on the road:

Towards the Future International!

References to contemporary documents are from Founding The Communist International - Proceedings and Documents of the First Congress: March 1919 (Anchor Foundation, 1987). The abbreviation FTCI has been used in these footnotes.

  • 1. The International Workingmen's [sic] Association (later referred to as the First International) was founded in 1864 and effectively collapsed in 1872 when the Anarchist element, led by Bakunin, split from those maintaining a Marxist approach. The Second International was formed in 1889. Both revolutionary and reformist tendencies were present throughout its history. That situation and the International itself shattered in August 1914 when the long established reformist practices resulted in the large majority of the national sections siding with national states at the start of the First World War.
  • 2. Lenin, The Third, Communist International, (FTCI, p.316)
  • 3. The then customary use of "man or mankind" for "humanity" is reflected in the language used at the Congress. That use of language inherited from capitalism should not overshadow the work carried out by prominent early Communists such as Clara Zetkin and Alexandra Kollontai to support the twin tasks of involving masses of proletarian women in the new Communist movement and also ensuring that the needs of women were central to the agenda of revolution. A brief summary of that struggle is reflected in the Congress's Resolution, moved by Kollontai, on the Need to Draw Women Workers into the Struggle for Socialism (FTCI, p.250)
  • 4. Lenin, The Third International and its Place in History, (FTCI, p.33)
  • 5. Both quotes in this paragraph are taken from p.189 of 1919 Red Mirage, David Mitchell, Jonathan Cape, 1970
  • 6. FTCI, p.248
  • 7. In 1915 an international conference against the war was held in Zimmerwald, Switzerland. At that meeting the Zimmerwald Left developed as a continuing tendency committed to revolutionary opposition, destroying the imperialist war effort by "civil war" i.e. revolution. Founders of the Zimmerwald Left included Lenin, Zinoviev, Radek and Platten.
  • 8. The Socialist Labor Party in the USA was a revolutionary organisation founded in 1876. It supported class struggle and stood apart from the creeping adaptations to capitalism by the Second International. It was part of the socialist opposition to the First World War. Its best known propagandist was Daniel De Leon.
  • 9. FTCI, p.140
  • 10. FTCI, p.157-8
  • 11. ABC of Communism, Bukharin and Preobrazhensky ed. E.H Carr, (Pelican Classics, 1969) pp.221-222
  • 12. FTCI, p.185
  • 13. FTCI, p.198
  • 14. FTCI, pp.144-5
  • 15. FTCI, p.247
  • 16. Mitchell, p.137
  • 17. The territory was previously known as the Russian Soviet Republic or the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. With the loss of its proletarian essence, it was reorganised into the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in 1922.
  • 18. "Days of Hope" was the title of a TV series broadcast in Britain in 1975. It was directed by the British leftist, Ken Loach, tracking the history of a working class family in Britain from 1916 to 1926.
  • 19. The Communist Manifesto, K Marx and F Engels (Pelican, 1967) p.79

Comments

slothjabber
Mar 7 2019 13:18

The point was I think that the adoption of Lenin's wrong ideas was a consequence of the degeneration of the world revolution and therefore one of the negative influences the Bolsheviks had on the ComIntern. Not that Lenin came to that position because of the degeneration of the revolution.

He came to that position because of an incomplete break with the politics of the previous epoch, when there was an argument for national self-determination, that Marx elaborated in regard to the possibility of Ireland breaking from Britain and Poland from Russia, for example.

But that is in the context of the 19th Century not the 20th. If the task of the working class is not to fight for reforms inside capitalism but to destroy it, then national self-determination doesn't come into it. There is no national road to socialism. Lenin couldn't see in this instance that what may have been correct in 1870 was not correct in 1919.

Dyjbas
Mar 7 2019 13:19

Slothjabber got it. Look at Turkey 1921 or China 1927 if you want to see the consequences of the Comintern's adoption of Lenin's ideas on national self-determination, of allying with the national bourgeoisie in the imperialist epoch.

Red Marriott
Mar 7 2019 14:05

Yes, slothjabber, I can agree with much of what you posted on the previous page but that is considerably more critical of Bolshevism than the article is. But then if there was such an speedy degeneration of the Comintern all it really boils down to is an obvious conclusion that ‘in principle it’s good to hold international meetings at high points of class struggle and revolution’. No one here has ever denied that.

Dyjbas wrote:
Red, you do realise that our tendency, and Left Communism in general, developed out of the critique of Comintern policy, Bolshevism and Lenin right? A bunch of the material hosted on libcom about the Communist Left in Italy, Germany, Russia, Britain and Poland was written, translated and unearthed by us.

Yes, I know all that. I even put some articles about/by left communists in libcom library some years ago; http://libcom.org/library/left-wing-communism-britain-1917-21an-infantil...
http://libcom.org/library/theses-left-communists-russia-1918
http://libcom.org/library/communist-left-russia-after-1920-ian-hebbes
But I see your partial critique of Bolshevism as late and insufficient, as previously explained.

Mike Harman
Mar 7 2019 14:34
slothjabber wrote:
He came to that position because of an incomplete break with the politics of the previous epoch, when there was an argument for national self-determination, that Marx elaborated in regard to the possibility of Ireland breaking from Britain and Poland from Russia, for example.

But that is in the context of the 19th Century not the 20th. If the task of the working class is not to fight for reforms inside capitalism but to destroy it, then national self-determination doesn't come into it. There is no national road to socialism. Lenin couldn't see in this instance that what may have been correct in 1870 was not correct in 1919.

Lenin's position is not the same as Marx's though.

Marx's position is fairly clear here:
https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1870/letters/70_04_09.htm

And most important of all! Every industrial and commercial centre in England now possesses a working class divided into two hostile camps, English proletarians and Irish proletarians. The ordinary English worker hates the Irish worker as a competitor who lowers his standard of life. In relation to the Irish worker he regards himself as a member of the ruling nation and consequently he becomes a tool of the English aristocrats and capitalists against Ireland, thus strengthening their domination over himself. He cherishes religious, social, and national prejudices against the Irish worker. His attitude towards him is much the same as that of the “poor whites” to the Negroes in the former slave states of the U.S.A.. The Irishman pays him back with interest in his own money. He sees in the English worker both the accomplice and the stupid tool of the English rulers in Ireland.
[...]
England, the metropolis of capital, the power which has up to now ruled the world market, is at present the most important country for the workers’ revolution, and moreover the only country in which the material conditions for this revolution have reached a certain degree of maturity. It is consequently the most important object of the International Working Men’s Association to hasten the social revolution in England. The sole means of hastening it is to make Ireland independent. Hence it is the task of the International everywhere to put the conflict between England and Ireland in the foreground, and everywhere to side openly with Ireland. It is the special task of the Central Council in London to make the English workers realise that for them the national emancipation of Ireland is not a question of abstract justice or humanitarian sentiment but the first condition of their own social emancipation.

If we try to boil down Marx's main argument:

1. There was massive antagonism between English and Irish workers in the UK.
2. Irish workers had been impoverished by continued English colonial rule in Ireland
3. For there to be a social revolution in England, there needed to be proper solidarity between English workers and Irish workers against the English ruling class in Ireland rather than chauvinist support or indifference to colonial rule.

What Marx very specifically does not talk about there, is Irish workers siding with the Irish national bourgeois. Maybe he says that elsewhere, I'm sure someone else can find it if they're motivated. It seems quite possible for Marx to take that position, as he did supporting the North in the American Civil War, but in both cases the positions are based on what might increase working class solidarity, not Lenin's geopolitical opportunism and formalistic assertions.

Similarly, Spanish workers in the 1930s should have consistently supported the end of Spain's colonial domination over Morocco - had they done so, it's possible the Moors would have joined them in 1936-39, or at least sat it out instead of fighting for Franco.

Or British workers should have supported the end of British colonial control of Kenya (and Bahrain, and Jamaica, and everywhere else). Possibly if they'd done so in Kenya it would have been harder for the UK to break the massive strike wave in 1945-1950, put hundreds of thousands in concentration camps in the '50s, or send marines to crush a mutiny on behalf of Kenyatta under independence.

This is basic international working class solidarity, it does not tell anyone to line up with the new national bourgeois.

Lenin even admits this point in the pamphlet, although he claims Marx advocated for a cross class alliance later which seems uncited:

Lenin wrote:
At first Marx thought that Ireland would not be liberated by the national movement of the oppressed nation, but by the working-class movement of the oppressor nation. Marx did not make an Absolute of the national movement, knowing, as he did, that only the victory of the working class can bring about the complete liberation of all nationalities. It is impossible to estimate beforehand all the possible relations between the bourgeois liberation movements of the oppressed nations and the proletarian emancipation movement of the oppressor nation (the very problem which today makes the national question in Russia so difficult).

However, it so happened that the English working class fell under the influence of the liberals for a fairly long time, became an appendage to the liberals, and by adopting a liberal-labour policy left itself leaderless. The bourgeois liberation movement in Ireland grew stronger and assumed revolutionary forms. Marx reconsidered his view and corrected it. “What a misfortune it is for a nation to have subjugated another.” The English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke. Reaction in England is strengthened and fostered by the enslavement of Ireland (just as reaction in Russia is fostered by her enslavement of a number of nations!).

And, in proposing in the International a resolution of sympathy with “the Irish nation”, “the Irish people” (the clever L. Vl. would probably have berated poor Marx for forgetting about the class struggle!), Marx advocated the separation of Ireland from England, “although after the separation there may come federation”.

Should also add that Rosa is not against 'self-determination' in the colloquial sense of people being able to determine their own lives - she simply says this is not possible within the framework of capitalism. This nevertheless does not indicate either support or indifference to colonialism in the slightest - again this is clear when you read what she actually said rather than Lenin's response to it. i.e. I don't Rosa's position that national self-determination would be a sham (something that foreshadowed 'neo-colonial' independence half a century later) means that she wouldn't support opposition to the colonial state or national militaries in the slightest - something that is often attributed to people who 'oppose national self-determination', not really the position.

slothjabber wrote:
If the task of the working class is not to fight for reforms inside capitalism but to destroy it, then national self-determination doesn't come into it.

But what are mass strikes with mass meetings of thousands of people, self-organisation against state violence such as pass laws, strikes which face massacres by police, blockades and strike action against militarism? I'd personally say they comprise part of the task of the working class (even if not explicitly communist), both pure self-defence/international solidarity and opening up the possibility for the struggle to be extended.

Mike Harman
Mar 7 2019 15:11
slothjabber wrote:
They "revised their opinions quite quickly after encountering the reality and seeing its development" - isn't the development the point? It's clear to me the article is saying 'started well, ended badly'. And Lenin and Trotsky's policies were among the things that made things go badly, but so were the actual material conditions existing in the world.

The question then is was it worth the attempt, as Pankhurst, Gorter and the rest believed, or was it not worth the bother?

The vast majority of communists in the UK, Netherlands or Germany did not have first hand information on what was going on in Russia, second hand information was provided by Lenin/The Bolsheviks, the local bourgeois press, and I'm not sure who else.

So the impression of the revolution in 1917-1919 from outside Russia, and the reality of what was going on in Russia, would have been very different. This is why Emma Goldman's book is called 'My Disillusionment in Russia', nor 'Confirmation of my suspicions in Russia'.

Therefore while I think it makes sense to be strict with the chronology of the positions Lenin took both to Russia and internationally, people internationally were operating on partial information weeks, months, or years out of date - they might have been around at the time, but they had a lot less information than we do now.

slothjabber
Mar 7 2019 15:16
Mike Harman wrote:
...

This is basic international working class solidarity, it does not tell anyone to line up with the new national bourgeois...

...
But what are mass strikes with mass meetings of thousands of people, self-organisation against state violence such as pass laws, strikes which face massacres by police, blockades and strike action against militarism? I'd personally say they comprise part of the task of the working class (even if not explicitly communist), both pure self-defence/international solidarity and opening up the possibility for the struggle to be extended.

I'd regard all of this as working class self-organisation; 'nationalism', or even the 'rights of nations to self-determination' doesn't come into it. Nationalism is allying with a bourgeoisie that speaks your language against workers who don't. Making common cause with workers who speak your language, against a bourgeoisie that also speaks your language, is not 'nationalism'. Even less so making common cause with workers who don't speak your language against a bourgeoisie that does.

Dyjbas
Mar 7 2019 15:47
Red Marriott wrote:
But I see your partial critique of Bolshevism as late and insufficient, as previously explained.

I think early signs of the degeneration were already visible by spring of 1918 and by 1921 the process of counter-revolution definitely begins. Is that too late? What do you think?

Bolsheviks tried to make the best of a bad situation. They knew that without world revolution, Soviet Russia was doomed. And after the revolution, each year of isolation brought them closer to doom.

Mike Harman wrote:
It seems quite possible for Marx to take that position, as he did supporting the North in the American Civil War, but in both cases the positions are based on what might increase working class solidarity, not Lenin's geopolitical opportunism and formalistic assertions.

While I agree that by the 1920s that's how the principle of self-determination came to be applied, Lenin originally formulated his theory in the context of the nations oppressed by the Russian Empire. For him the "Russian Socialists who fail to demand freedom of secession for Finland, Poland, the Ukraine, etc., etc.—are behaving like chauvinists, like lackeys of the blood-and-mud-stained imperialist monarchies and the imperialist bourgeoisie." (Lenin, 1916)

In other words, it was a tactical question. For Lenin, denying self-determination meant strengthening Russian chauvinism. Whereas for Luxemburg, accepting self-determination meant strengthening Polish nationalism.

Mike Harman
Mar 7 2019 19:15
Dyjbas wrote:
While I agree that by the 1920s that's how the principle of self-determination came to be applied, Lenin originally formulated his theory in the context of the nations oppressed by the Russian Empire.

Except once again, this is in 1914:

Lenin wrote:
This is not the first time that national movements have arisen in Russia, nor are they peculiar to that country alone. Throughout the world, the period of the final victory of capitalism over feudalism has been linked up with national movements. For the complete victory of commodity production, the bourgeoisie must capture the home market, and there must be politically united territories whose population speak a single language, with all obstacles to the development of that language and to its consolidation in literature eliminated. Therein is the economic foundation of national movements. Language is the most important means of human intercourse. Unity and unimpeded development of language are the most important conditions for genuinely free and extensive commerce on a scale commensurate with modern capitalism, for a free and broad grouping of the population in all its various classes and, lastly, for the establishment of a close connection between the market and each and every proprietor, big or little, and between seller and buyer.

Therefore, the tendency of every national movement is towards the formation of national states, under which these requirements of modern capitalism are best satisfied. The most profound economic factors drive towards this goal, and, therefore, for the whole of Western Europe, nay, for the entire civilised world, the national state is typical and normal for the capitalist period.

This is nothing to do with colonial oppression or international working class solidarity that might immediately precipitate a revolution, it's to do with bourgeois modernisation under a national leadership.

Lenin wrote:
There is no doubt that the greater part of Asia, the most densely populated continent, consists either of colonies of the “Great Powers”, or of states that are extremely dependent and oppressed as nations. But does this commonly-known circumstance in any way shake the undoubted fact that in Asia itself the conditions for the most complete development of commodity production and the freest, widest and speediest growth of capitalism have been created only in Japan, i. e., only in an independent national state? The latter is a bourgeois state, and for that reason has itself begun to oppress other nations and to enslave colonies. We cannot say whether Asia will have had time to develop into a system of independent national states, like Europe, before the collapse of capitalism, but it remains an undisputed fact that capitalism, having awakened Asia, has called forth national movements everywhere in that continent, too; that the tendency of these movements is towards the creation of national states in Asia; that it is such states that ensure, the best conditions for the development of capitalism.

Apart from anything else, the big problem here for Lenin, is that he sees colonies of the Imperialist countries as 'pre-capitalist' whereas colonisation had already brought those countries into the world capitalist system - usually via various forms of plantation forced or semi-free labour for cash crop export (sugar in the Caribbean, cotton in America, coffee in East Africa, rubber in Malaya). This is something that Marx had already noted in Capital, but which Lenin overlooks.

Mike Harman
Mar 7 2019 19:18
slothjabber wrote:

I'd regard all of this as working class self-organisation; 'nationalism', or even the 'rights of nations to self-determination' doesn't come into it. Nationalism is allying with a bourgeoisie that speaks your language against workers who don't.

OK me too, I think that trying to get pass laws revoked, or a mass strike for shorter hours or a pay rise, can be reasonably described as fighting for reforms - although we can distinguish these from reformism as such by calling them 'fighting for concessions' maybe.

So in that case would you consider Marx's remarks on Ireland - at least the ones I quoted, to be an expression of international working class solidarity rather than support for the 'rights of nations to self-determination'? There is plenty of Marx's international political opinions to disagree with (the French need a smashing or whatever), but I prefer to disagree with what he actually said, or note inconsistencies, as opposed to Lenin who misquotes him to make a completely different point.

The point being of course that if we think Marx mostly formulated British-Irish solidarity as a call for working class solidarity, then it provides an example of an early alternative framework for anti-colonial solidarity from that of 'the right of nations to self-determination'.

Dyjbas
Mar 7 2019 20:27
Mike Harman wrote:
Except once again, this is in 1914

But as it says in the article by Lenin that I linked to, "the difference between the revolutionary Social-Democrats of Russia and the Polish Social-Democrats on the question of self-determination came to the surface as early as 1903." I.e. a long time before 1914.

As a side note, you can trace the opposition of the Polish Social-Democrats to national liberation all the way back to the 1880s. See e.g. this and this.

Mike Harman
Mar 7 2019 21:51
Dyjbas wrote:
Mike Harman wrote:
Except once again, this is in 1914

But as it says in the article by Lenin that I linked to, "the difference between the revolutionary Social-Democrats of Russia and the Polish Social-Democrats on the question of self-determination came to the surface as early as 1903." I.e. a long time before 1914.

As a side note, you can trace the opposition of the Polish Social-Democrats to national liberation all the way back to the 1880s. See e.g. this and this.

The problem is that you (and Lenin) are conflating opposition to colonialism from workers in the colonialist/imperialist state, with support for the nationalist bourgeois in the colonised state, and calling both of these 'support for national liberation'. This is the rhetorical sleight of hand that Lenin uses to attack Rosa Luxemburg's position, and which forms much of the basis of Leninist support for national bourgeois right up until today. However you can see in the sections I quoted, that he somewhat admits that Marx took the 'oppose colonialism' position, not the 'support national bourgeois' one.

So it is not the case that Marx was correct in 1870 and Lenin was wrong in 1914 with identical positions, but that Marx and Lenin had different positions which Lenin pretends are the same to dishonestly attack Luxemburg.

If we can admit that Marx's position was not the same as Lenin, and whether it's perfect or not, it does point towards an anti-colonial internationalist solidarity, as opposed to a reactionary nationalist anti-imperialism, then we can ask to what extent does Marx's framework for understanding this question (primarily from the standpoint of the solidarity or lack of it between geographically/nationally stratified groups of workers) provides an alternative to Lenin's, rather than simply being 'of a different time'.

Dyjbas
Mar 7 2019 22:39
Mike Harman wrote:
The problem is that you (and Lenin) are conflating opposition to colonialism from workers in the colonialist/imperialist state, with support for the nationalist bourgeois in the colonised state, and calling both of these 'support for national liberation'.

I don't. There is a difference between opposition to national oppression and support for the national bourgeoisie.

Mike Harman wrote:
This is the rhetorical sleight of hand that Lenin uses to attack Rosa Luxemburg's position, and which forms much of the basis of Leninist support for national bourgeois right up until today.

I disagree with the so called "Leninist" support for national liberation. I think Luxemburg was on the right track.

Mike Harman wrote:
If we can admit that Marx's position was not the same as Lenin, and whether it's perfect or not, it does point towards an anti-colonial internationalist solidarity, as opposed to a reactionary nationalist anti-imperialism

What do you mean by "anti-colonial internationalist solidarity"? Like with "anti-imperialism", "anti-colonialism" is often code word for support for the national bourgeoisie.

radicalgraffiti
Mar 7 2019 22:57
slothjabber wrote:
I'll say again, this process of rapid degeneration was a result both of the failure of the world revolution and the policy decisions of the Bolsheviks. But those policy-decisions were themselves conditioned by the failure of the world revolution. Had the revolution successfully spread to Germany then the world, then the 'right of nations to self-determination' would have been consigned to the dustbin of history where it belongs, no matter what Lenin wrote in 1914, and arguments about whether the Labour Party should have been supported 'as the rope supports the hangman' would be moot.

But the revolution didn't spread; and that is what caused the degeneration of the ComIntern, the material conditions not 'bad ideas'. .

i think the idea that the revolution failed because it failed to spread is massively flawed, if the revolution had spread in the same from as in did in russia, the centralising tendencies would have still been there, the councils would have still been under the control of parties not the workers, the party that took power would have still sort to crush other organisations on the left, because those where things that happened from the start of the revolution, and if that form of revolution succeed across the world we'd still be in need of another one

slothjabber
Mar 8 2019 00:15

Yes, if it had we would.

But why would it? Are workers incapable of revolting without bureaucrats telling them how?

Dyjbas
Mar 8 2019 10:40

Radicalgraffiti, for one, had the revolution been successful in Germany (which is what everyone was hoping for) the political makeup of the Comintern would have been different. In fact, the First Congress was originally to take place either in Berlin or in the Netherlands, but with the crushing of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919, that plan had to be changed.

We can play "what-ifs" with history but had the revolution spread, it would not have spread in exactly the same way as in did in Russia (because the material conditions and the political forces involved were different in different countries). With successful revolutions in more than one country though, the Comintern would not have been so easily transformed into a tool of the Russian party and eventually the Russian state.

radicalgraffiti wrote:
the councils would have still been under the control of parties not the workers, the party that took power would have still sort to crush other organisations on the left, because those where things that happened from the start of the revolution

You are confusing the final outcome with a process of degeneration. The working class in Russia was in control of the soviets (it gradually lost it over the course of the Civil War), the Bolsheviks did work together with the Left SRs, Menshevik-Internationalists, Maximalists and various anarchists (relations with some of these groups only broke around spring 1918, after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).

Mike Harman
Mar 8 2019 15:49
Dyjbas wrote:

What do you mean by "anti-colonial internationalist solidarity"? Like with "anti-imperialism", "anti-colonialism" is often code word for support for the national bourgeoisie.

I gave specific examples above, which I don't believe you've responded to, here they are again:

Mike Harman wrote:
What Marx very specifically does not talk about there, is Irish workers siding with the Irish national bourgeois. Maybe he says that elsewhere, I'm sure someone else can find it if they're motivated. It seems quite possible for Marx to take that position, as he did supporting the North in the American Civil War, but in both cases the positions are based on what might increase working class solidarity, not Lenin's geopolitical opportunism and formalistic assertions.

Similarly, Spanish workers in the 1930s should have consistently supported the end of Spain's colonial domination over Morocco - had they done so, it's possible the Moors would have joined them in 1936-39, or at least sat it out instead of fighting for Franco.

Or British workers should have supported the end of British colonial control of Kenya (and Bahrain, and Jamaica, and everywhere else). Possibly if they'd done so in Kenya it would have been harder for the UK to break the massive strike wave in 1945-1950, put hundreds of thousands in concentration camps in the '50s, or send marines to crush a mutiny on behalf of Kenyatta shortly after independence.

This is basic international working class solidarity, it does not tell anyone to line up with the new national bourgeois.

Dyjbas
Mar 9 2019 12:37

Ok, but all you've said there is that

Mike Harman wrote:
Spanish workers in the 1930s should have consistently supported the end of Spain's colonial domination over Morocco

And that

Mike Harman wrote:
British workers should have supported the end of British colonial control of Kenya

That's all well and good, but it doesn't answer the question of what this support should have looked like. For many so called anti-colonialists it did mean supporting (mostly by words, sometimes by deeds) the rising national bourgeoisie. Whereas internationalists affirm that "the main enemy is at home" and that no support should be given to the bourgeoisie anywhere.

radicalgraffiti
Mar 9 2019 17:57
Dyjbas wrote:
Radicalgraffiti, for one, had the revolution been successful in Germany (which is what everyone was hoping for) the political makeup of the Comintern would have been different. In fact, the First Congress was originally to take place either in Berlin or in the Netherlands, but with the crushing of the Spartacist Uprising in January 1919, that plan had to be changed.

We can play "what-ifs" with history but had the revolution spread, it would not have spread in exactly the same way as in did in Russia (because the material conditions and the political forces involved were different in different countries). With successful revolutions in more than one country though, the Comintern would not have been so easily transformed into a tool of the Russian party and eventually the Russian state.

radicalgraffiti wrote:
the councils would have still been under the control of parties not the workers, the party that took power would have still sort to crush other organisations on the left, because those where things that happened from the start of the revolution

You are confusing the final outcome with a process of degeneration. The working class in Russia was in control of the soviets (it gradually lost it over the course of the Civil War), the Bolsheviks did work together with the Left SRs, Menshevik-Internationalists, Maximalists and various anarchists (relations with some of these groups only broke around spring 1918, after the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk).

i don't think i am
this came up before recently in fact i replied to you that time too
https://libcom.org/forums/history/how-did-bolsheviks-take-state-power-02...
unless you have a better source, that also contradicts the one you cited last time then i think the evidence shows the workers were never in control of the 1917 soviets, from the start decisions were made by executive committees etc, obviously it got worse over time, but most of the problems were there form the start

this also why i don't think if the revolution had spread that would have solved every thing, cause a lot of wat was wrong wasn't about how isolated russia was or what resources where available

Dyjbas
Mar 9 2019 19:08

Radicalgraffiti, I responded to that very comment of yours on that thread (which you did not reply to).

Objecting to the existence of executive committees for bodies comprising hundreds, if not thousands, of workers is a bit ridiculous. You might as well object to strike committees as "authoritarian" too.

radicalgraffiti
Mar 9 2019 22:26
Dyjbas wrote:
Radicalgraffiti, I responded to that very comment of yours on that thread (which you did not reply to).

Objecting to the existence of executive committees for bodies comprising hundreds, if not thousands, of workers is a bit ridiculous. You might as well object to strike committees as "authoritarian" too.

you do understand what anarchist means right? i guess not

i agree with Mike Harman's responses on the other thread, i didn't really see the point in repeating them

Mike Harman
Mar 10 2019 09:57
Dyjbas wrote:
That's all well and good, but it doesn't answer the question of what this support should have looked like. For many so called anti-colonialists it did mean supporting (mostly by words, sometimes by deeds) the rising national bourgeoisie.

In Kenya the rising national bourgeoisie on the part of Kenyatta was trying to call off strikes in the 1940s and supporting a nominally non-racist pass law rather than its abolition. The British absolutely misunderstood him when they arrested him, when in fact he was from the start happy to manage Kenya on behalf of the British. He was an unpopular figure until his arrest and imprisonment.

The other significant proto-bourgeois faction in Kenya were the Chiefs, who were loyalists already integrated into the colonial state, they assisted the British with forced labour in the inter-war and WWII years, then during the State of Emergency in running concentration camps. After the State of Emergency Kenyatta helped to put down the last KLFA guerrillas just before and after independence and called in British troops to put down a mutiny.

For another example we could talk about the Saigon Commune: https://libcom.org/history/articles/saigon-commune-1945

The idea that the national bourgeois supports anti-colonial movements up and until independence, then crushes them, is itself a Leninist myth that does not apply in a large number of cases. All the way back to Haiti you have Toussaint attempting to negotiate with Napoleon to run Haiti as a plantation state (based on wage labour instead of slavery but still based on export of cash crops), maintaining trade with France, putting down plantation insurrections and acting militarily against the maroons.

Dyjbas wrote:
Whereas internationalists affirm that "the main enemy is at home" and that no support should be given to the bourgeoisie anywhere.

Amazing, I've been an admin on an internationalist website for nearly 15 years and I've never heard this! What would we do without the internationalist fraction of the communist left indeed!

In the case of Spain, the Spanish state was in control of Morocco, supporting the continued colonisation of Morocco was supporting the 'main enemy'. In Kenya the British state was in control. In Spain I think there was quite a lot of division over this question. In the UK as far as I've been able to tell there was complete indifference.

'Support' at the basic level can simply be publishing articles detailing what's happening to the extent possible, supporting working class organisation against both the British state and the emergent local ruling class. Surely you believe this is possible without giving support to the local bourgeois? Is supporting strikes and uprisings in Iran support for MEK?

Much more concretely (to give a hypothetical example for Kenya) would be things like blacking Kenyan goods from arriving in British ports or attempting to disrupt military recruitment/distribution lines. This all seems quite basic and I'm not sure why it's necessary to point it out unless you're really entirely incapable of discussing in good faith.

Dyjbas
Mar 10 2019 11:13

Mike, it does need pointing out, because, like I said above, people mean different things by "anti-colonialism" (to bring it back to the previous discussion, see for example Pankhurst and her support for Haile Selassie...). I agree with this:

Mike Harman wrote:
'Support' at the basic level can simply be publishing articles detailing what's happening to the extent possible, supporting working class organisation against both the British state and the emergent local ruling class.

Although I would say working class self-organisation (so not trade unions or modern social-democratic parties, which purport to be examples of working class organisation but ultimately act against the class).

In any case, as it stands this discussion has already been derailed enough from what the topic of the article actually is...

syndicalist
Mar 10 2019 21:00

Politically, as an anarcho-syndicalist, I find this basically just bad politics.

That said, it has been a generally interesting conversation to follow.

Mike Harman
Mar 10 2019 21:03
Dyjbas wrote:
Mike, it does need pointing out, because, like I said above, people mean different things by "anti-colonialism"

The problem is though that to get any acknowledgement of you about international solidarity with working class self-organisation takes about 15 replies, where your main response is to point out that lots of people conflate anti-colonial with support for national bourgeois.

We should be able to do better than accepting Leninist framing of things, then purely rejecting their conclusions, but not the flawed analysis and ahistorical approach that accompanies both the initial framing and the conclusions. Or in other words there needs to be more than a reflexive anti-Leninism/anti-nationalism in order for there to be actual communist internationalism.

Given the comintern was the biggest single promoter of supporting national bourgeois during the 20th century, beginning with the 'national liberation' of Germany as early as 1920-23 (against the German working class) I don't think it's too far off the topic of the thread.

Dyjbas
Mar 10 2019 23:57

I think I've made it pretty clear that international working class self-organisation is absolutely key. So does the article - it also criticises the Comintern for its support for national liberation, in contrast to the internationalism of its First Congress.

Cleishbotham
Mar 13 2019 10:41

Leninistgirl, there is no false narrative here but there is in your mind a confusion between Lenin and the organisations he was in. Lenin certainly held the view that the the right of self-determination should be supported but initially this was because of his opposition to Russian nationalism ("Great Russian chauvinism") BUT he was not supported by all Bolsheviks (Piatakov, Bosch and Bukharin especially) and the right of self-determination was not part of the Bolshevik programme in October (something Rosa Luxemburg did not understand since she blamed the Bolshevik policy of self-determination for the loss of Finland and Ukraine (when in fact the Bolsheviks simply were in no position to defend those territories). Lenin's instructions over Georgia were also ignored by Stalin who re-annexed the territory. However in the Comintern Lenin revived the slogan but this time on an international level (meaning support for "anti-colonial" bourgeois forces). His position was attacked by M N Roy and Sultanzadeh in the Comintern meetings but this policy prevailed and was to have murderous consequences for the proletariat in Turkey, China and elsewhere who were mowed down by bourgeois forces which had been supported by the Comintern.