The Marxist Left, for the most part, still lives in the first quarter of the 20th century as though little has changed. In spite of the colossal changes that have taken place since then it struggles to situate itself in the 21st century. We often get accused of living in the past, of not moving on and asked “what’s with all the dead old white men?”. We cannot articulate our ideas without reference to past betrayals, historical disputes and attempting to provide clean cut narratives, drawing a red thread from historical struggles to struggles today. This is a problem. A problem which makes the initiation into Communist ideas inherently problematic and arduous to communicate with those who haven’t read the canonical works of Marxism (then there is the question of exactly who’s canon is the true one…).
We don’t claim to have solved this issue, however we think it worth explicitly articulating these problems for further discussion among those interested parties who do in fact want to see Communist ideas popularised. We are also aware that we are living in the shadow of these problems as much as any other group and also situate ourselves in similar ways. We’d like to avoid any sort of demand that unified action among ourselves and others be predicated upon complete agreement with any single historical narrative but a narrative is nevertheless what we are presenting here.
There are a number of events which roughly took place in the first 25 years of the 20th century which define us whether we like it or not. We are still very much living in their shadow: the formation of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), the outbreak of World War I, the October Revolution, the formation of the Communist International, the final defeat of the Commune State and the dream represented in the slogan “All Power to the Soviets” with the consolidation of the Stalin regime (though the roots for this defeat were set long in advance of Stalin’s rise).
The Social Democratic Party of Germany
The rise of the SPD and its subsequent collapse of its revolutionary potential, by voting for the war credits in August 1914, has left the Marxist-Left disorientated to this day. The Party prior to this event was considered the greatest organisational achievement of the Proletariat, achieving millions of votes, publishing hundreds of newspapers, organising mass strikes and protests with hundreds of thousands of members, while (on paper at least) upholding an explicitly revolutionary programme (1). It had led international conferences where the European Social Democratic Parties were all in agreement that in the event of the imperialist bloodshed of world war breaking out, they would, to paraphrase Lenin, turn the bourgeois imperialist war into a proletarian civil war; i.e. stage socialist revolutions to bring the war to an end.
As it transpired the social democrats sided with their own capitalist class (2). Initially, Lenin famously believed that the newspaper announcements that the SPD had supported the war were a forgery. Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek on the other hand were less surprised having broken with the SPD centre a number of years before the war. Karl Kautsky the leading Marxist at the time had refused to publish Luxemburg’s republican call for mass strikes to achieve universal suffrage; opposing her ‘strategy of overthrow’ to his ‘strategy of attrition’ (3). Ostensibly this was not a rejection of the seizure of power by Kautsky. He claimed to favour a final decisive rupture with the Capitalists once the time was right, on paper at least. With the start of the Imperialist slaughter his deeds would suggest otherwise. The SPD would later see Rosa Luxemburg murdered by fascists rather than seek Socialist revolution in Germany. They had absolutely and decisively gone over to the forces of counter-revolution.
Historical detail aside the dilemma stands: how do we build an organisation that will actually carry out its revolutionary programme? The response of the lefts at the time was to break with old Social Democracy and its reformism decisively; to found a new international communist organisation and fight for a revolutionary defeatist programme. That meant to take neither side in the Imperialist conflict but that of the international proletariat, i.e. they upheld the very resolutions voted upon by international social democracy before the outbreak of the war (4).
The Russian Revolution
This programme, though a very small minority trend at its inception (in fact a minority of a minority (5)), was the programme which won out and led directly to the Bolshevik seizure of power in the October Revolution of 1917. We refuse to degrade this magnificent world changing event with the epithet of it being a military coup. The Bolsheviks, having finally won a majority in the Soviets (the workers councils) unlike other groups, actually saw through their programme. The Working Class were in control; their democratic councils ruled over Russian society. For a short time Russia was perhaps the most democratic society that has existed, where the toilers called all the shots. This was the first time in world history the proletariat as a class ruled an entire national territory, where it looked likely the forces of international communism could in fact win.
Unfortunately as we all know it was not to be. In the words of Lenin “without a German revolution we are doomed” (6), and doomed they were (towards achieving this the Communist International was founded, see below). This isn’t the place for a full assessment of the defeat of the Russian Revolution but a few words are necessary. The priority for the Bolsheviks was to essentially hold the fort at whatever cost until the German Revolution succeeded. Whatever was deemed necessary to defend the fledgling Workers State was ruthlessly pursued. The Bolsheviks ended up adopting an anti-Marxist voluntarism to see this through, even prior to the banning of factions in 1921 (I believe this year marks the point of no return (7)) a whole series of democratic procedures had been abandoned and the Bolshevik central committee was essentially in control of the country.
Workers strikes were suppressed, peasant uprisings drowned in blood, Anarchists and Communist opposition were rounded up, elected management was abolished, Taylorist work methods introduced, etc. This was done all in the name of instituting labour discipline conceived as a pragmatic (though anti-communist) response to alleviate mass starvation and restore absolutely impoverished Russian industry. Trotsky infamously called for the full scale militarisation of labour in pursuit of this, a policy Stalin later adopted.
With the end of the civil war and adoption of the ‘New Economic Policy’ (introduction of pro-market reforms) and the defeat of the German Revolution in 1921, there came relative economic and social stability to the Soviet state and a lull in the International revolutionary movement. This set the stage for Stalin’s infamous ‘Socialism in One Country’ thesis in 1924 (after the death of Lenin and completely unheard of at the time). There were no immediate prospects for invasion from without, with growth taking place domestically and international trade deals in place, national industrial development became paramount. This brings us to the Communist International and its simultaneous collapse into full scale counter-revolution following the events of the Russian Revolution.
The Communist International
The Third Communist International, or Comintern, was founded in 1919 with the express goal of coordinating the world revolution. It saw the formation and affiliation of Communist Parties all around the world. The founding congress represented a gathering of forces, the second its consolidation with a definite revolutionary programme and mandate established (famously demanding 21 strict conditions for affiliation along the lines of an intransigent pursuit of socialist revolutions). The third and fourth congresses reversed course in response to the lull in the workers movement with a policy of conciliation with the Social Democrats adopted; the conception of forming a ‘workers government’ with the murderers of Luxemburg and Liebknecht was called for. The fifth congress saw the consolidation of Stalin’s forces.
What was once the glorious Revolutionary high command of the world Proletariat became a tool in the service of the national interests of the Soviet State where national sections of the Comintern were subordinated absolutely to the defence of the Soviet Union at all costs (i.e. at the cost of Socialist revolution elsewhere). This was shown most clearly in the policy of the ‘Popular Front’ where Communists were told to join Capitalist governments ostensibly to prevent the rise of fascism, but primarily to try and secure alliances with the Imperialist powers. This transformation wasn’t a simple matter, as some would have it, of Stalin’s rise to power. We see the early start of this for example in Lenin congratulating the king of Afghanistan (8), Trotsky’s calls for caution in the pursuit of revolutions in the East (9) and Soviet diplomacy to Ataturk’s Turkey.
Amadeo Bordiga was the last of the Revolutionary lefts to directly confront Stalin about the fate of the Russian Revolution and destruction of the Revolutionary potential of the Comintern in 1926. He famously called for the Communist International’s independence and it’s rule over the Soviet Union, or anywhere else Revolution broke out, to counter the nationalist tendencies of subordination of world revolution to defending the Soviet fortress state (10).
The long shadow
The rise of the SPD and its betrayal; the October Revolution and its collapse; the Communist International and its collapse. These events and their subsequent degeneration into counter-revolution haunt the Revolutionary left to this day. How we mean to achieve Socialist Revolution, where all the roads travelled historically have failed, is the question.
Should we take on the task of building a rejuvenated Social Democracy, build a popular party of the entire class and follow a strategy of reformist attrition till the time is right for insurrection, at some undesignated future date (and hope they don’t join imperialist governments and murder us again)? Should we instead seek to build a military like Communist Party on the basis of those founded in the wake of the October Revolution (and hope they don’t join imperialist governments and murder us again)? What, if any, material basis is there to really expect the coalescence of such forces?
We can see today the revival of a form of Social Democracy, with the rise of parties like Syriza, Die Linke, Rifondazione, Podemos, etc. we even see Social Democrats in the Labour Party leadership and in the Democratic US presidential race. Is there any hope for them in pursuing Socialism (11)? Not at all if historical precedence is anything to go by. One of those parties, which many so called Marxist groups backed is currently pursing austerity measures in Greece.
Which brings us back to the shadow of October. What have we learned from those tumultuous first decades of the 20th century? Apparently very little! Though Social Democracy has been a “stinking corpse” since 4 August 1914 (12), many on the Revolutionary Left are spending their precious time providing Left cover for outright Imperialist Parties by backing Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders. Small top-down hierarchical Parties, inspired by those from the early Comintern, are being put to work to reforge Social Democratic Parties. This is without question a mistake and counter productive towards achieving our final goal, a goal which cannot be pursued without maintaining our intransigent revolutionary independence and programme.
The disorientation entailed by the failures of the early 20th century still live with us, the Marxist Left is incredibly confused as to which course to follow. It keeps attempting to circumvent the void that has been left of the Worker’s movement since the 1970s by finding short cuts to the Socialist Revolution. It’s quite easy to get exited at Sanders and Corbyn’s campaigns, and it’s certainly correct to see this as a necessary part of some form of working class reawakening. But it is our role to provide clarity and revolutionary guidance, not to get lost in the euphoria (or huffing on their superglue). Expedients and tactical manoeuvres may increase our numbers but if our numbers rise on the basis of compromising Marxist ideas then how can we ever see through our goal?
We need to draw a line of demarcation between Revolutionary independence of the proletarian class struggle and conciliation with the class collaborators. We need to be an inviting open place for Workers to come and discuss; we need to learn to articulate our ideas without either losing people with our jargon (yes I know!), or pursuing people with soft misrepresentations of what our ideas really are. We need to abandon the top-down undemocratic party line group-think form of political organisation currently dominant on the left. We need to get our act together and emerge from the shadow.
(1) The Erfurt Programme, 1891
(2) See Lenin’s The Collapse of the Second International, 1915
and Rosa Luxemburg’s Junis Pamphlet, 1915 https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/
(3) Karl Kautsky Selected Political Writings, ed Patrick Goode, Macmillian Press, 1983
(4)”In case war should break out anyway it is their duty to intervene in favor of its speedy termination and with all their powers to utilize the economic and political crisis created by the war to arouse the people and thereby to hasten the downfall of capitalist class rule.” Manifesto of the International Socialist Congress at Basel, 1912
(5) See the differences between the stand of the Zimerwald Left and the final manifesto adopted at Zimerwald in 1915
(6) Extraordinary Seventh Congress of the R.C.P.(B.)
(7) 1921: Beginning of the Counter-revolution?
(8) The National Liberation Movement in the East, Vladimir Lenin, Progress Publishers, 1952
(9) “All information on the situation in Khiva, in Persia, in Bukhara and in Afghanistan confirm the fact that a Soviet revolution in these countries is going to cause us major difficulties at the present time… Until the situation in the West is stabilized and until our industries and transport systems have improved, a Soviet expansion in the east could prove to be no less dangerous than a war in the West…a potential Soviet revolution in the east is today to our advantage principally as an important element in diplomatic relations with England. From this I conclude that: 1) in the east we should devote ourselves to political and educational work…and at the same time advise all possible caution in actions calculated to require our military support, or which might require it; 2) we have to continue by all possible channels at our disposal to arrive at an understanding with England about the east.”
(10) The Communist Left in the Third International Bordiga at the 6th Enlarged Executive Meeting of the Communist International, 1926
(11) Good piece against Social Democratic entry work
Are there stages of consciousness? What do they mean for entryism as political strategy? by DGS_TaP and systemcrash
(12) Rosa Luxemburg’s Junis Pamphlet, 1915 https://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1915/junius/