In the Shadow of October

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

(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.”

BOOK REVIEW: John Eric Marot, The October Revolution in Prospect and Retrospect: Interventions in Russian and Soviet History (2012)

(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

Are there stages of consciousness? What do they mean for entryism as political strategy?

(12) Rosa Luxemburg’s Junis Pamphlet, 1915

Notes on Socialist Strategy, a short History Lesson


One of the most perplexing things about the Socialist Left is its disregard for considering something that should be fairly obvious, that is how we conceive of the Socialist Revolution as actually happening and what we intend to do to move us from where we are in the here and now to the future Communist promised land. That is, what is our strategy? Through consciously intervening within the class struggle as it actually exists, how do we intend on eventually seizing power? What hurdles must we climb to get there, what stages must we pass through. Lets have a short and somewhat crude history lesson.

The Germans

The old Socialist movement at the turn of the 20th Century had a fairly simple but empirically justifiable conception at the time, to put it somewhat crudely, with the further proletarianisation of the non wage-laouring population, brought about by the domination of the Capitalist mode of production, the Social Democrats would eventually win parliamentary elections with outright majorities ushering in the new age. Social Democratic votes were increasing over time, they were able to force concessions previously thought impossible to achieve under Capitalism from the Capitalist State. Perspectives were this could, in an evolutionary manner lead to a post-Capitalist society. Parliament was considered a neutral organ through which the Proletariat could exercise their ‘dictatorship’, that is, their majority rule.

This didn’t quite go as planned. The proletarianisation of the peasant and petty bourgeois took far longer to happen than was expected. To gain majorities would require waiting a long time or compromising the Communist programme of the proletariat to non-proletarian forces, layers of the skilled semi-proletarian, petty bourgeois, peasantry, etc. It also bought out the problem of amelioration, that is some workers did have more to lose than their chains and didn’t see the necessity for revolutionary upheaval. The concept of Aristocracy and Bureaucracy of Labour, that is the privileges of the skilled worker and the leaders of newly formed trade unions deal with these problems.

The old Socialist movement abandoned for the most part the conception of working towards a post-capitalist, prior to their betrayal in August 1914 of their internationalist programmes. This event forced a dramatic split within the international Socialist Movement, with Rosa Luxemburg denouncing it as a “stinking corpse” and Lenin demanding a complete rupture. Having seized power in Russia this old evolutionary framework of slowly subsuming the bourgeois state to proletarian interests was destroyed. Lenin famously in polemic with Kautsky relentlessly attacked the notion that the parliamentary form of government was somehow a neutral organ in the class struggle, it was necessarily a bourgeois institution which must be overturned root and branch, in Marx’s words “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.”. The revolutionary state must be grounded in the new organs of proletarian power, the workers councils.

The Russians

The strategy proposed by the Russian Revolutionary victory was essentially, do as we did. Organise around a Marxist programme, struggle through the trade-unions and bourgeois state institutions in an explicitly revolutionary manner towards educating the proletariat of the folly of reformism and necessity of revolution, “Agitate, Educate, Organise” as the old dictum went. Eventually the multiplication of the Proletariat and Capitalism producing crises endogenously will lead to the outbreak of mass strike waves and the formation of workers councils. On the basis of gaining proletarian majorities within these councils the Communist Party must take initiative and practice the art of insurrection.

The Russian Revolution and ascent of the Third Communist International did indeed transform Communism from the spectre Marx mentions into a real material force in society which looked very much at the time like it could win, with Revolutions breaking out throughout all of Europe bringing WWI to an end. Unfortunately, as we can all attest, they did not win. Not only did they not win but we saw the rise of Fascism and Stalinism. Where exactly the blame for this lays is not the subject of this article but I would suggest that contrary to many accounts the betrayal of individuals in positions of responsibility is not sufficient explanation.

With the rise of Stalinism the two main strategies for the most part coalesced into one, following the Social Democrats the Communist Parties under orders from Moscow more and more transformed themselves into tools of Soviet foreign diplomacy. The Dictatorship of the Proletariat as the goal of the Communist Parties was repudiated in deeds (and later explicitly in words). Work towards guaranteeing Bourgeois ‘Peaceful-Coexistence’ with Russia was the order of the day, evidenced in the tactic of the so-called Popular Front. Both Social-Democrats and Official Communist Parties now were quite simply the Left of Capital, they did not represent a threat of rupture with the Capitalist mode of production – though their grassroots membership would periodically contest this, the upper echelons utterly rejected Socialist revolution. Much good work was done, and much can be gained from studying the history of these movements but fundamentally they were no longer capable of seizing power.

Trots and LeftComs

Which brings us to the two main breakaway Marxist trends from the Social Democrats and Official Communists; Trotskyism and Left-Communism. Trotskyism developed as the International Left Opposition to the rise of Stalinism in Russia (contesting the lack of democracy and Soviet economic policy) and the subordination of Communist Parties to the national interests of the Soviet Union (particularly the Popular Front). They considered themselves the inheritors of the banner of Marx and Lenin, they upheld the decisions of the first four congresses of the Communist International.

Realising the limitations inherent in the fact that the parliamentary arena was already occupied by Social Democrats and Communists, that independently their ability to challenge them was basically futile, after all as Trotsky said Socialism had demonstrated itself “not in the language of dialectics, but in the language of steel, cement and electricity”. Combating the influence of the Stalinists while the Soviet Union was empirically before the very eyes of the world Proletariat advancing industrially at breakneck pace was not easy to say the least. Attempting to work within the official communist parties was considered something of a non-starter, the absurd lies and falsifications the Soviet Union pumped out about Leon Trotsky as a Nazi wrecker of the Communist movement meant that the Communist Parties would physically attack the Trotskyists making it near impossible to actually intervene. Instead they opted for work within the Social Democratic parties with the so-called ‘French Turn’.

With the perspective of Imperialist decay, the inability for the Capitalists to any longer develop the productive forces, the staggering growth of the Soviet Union and the oncoming world war the Trotskyists took the stand point of making ‘transitional demands’ proving themselves the most revolutionary wing of the worker’s movement, waiting for the catastrophe to come, on the back of which the Fourth International would lead the world Proletariat to victory. The spontaneous rising of the revolutionary proletariat would be the result of the catastrophe, the role of the Trotskyists was considered as essentially pushing them along, ‘transitionally’ closer and closer to revolutionary consciousness at which point the insurrection would be organised.

Given the situation at the time I think this somewhat justifiable, the Left-Communists trends, primarily split between the Partyist Italians under the leadership of Amedio Bordiga and the German-Dutch Council Communists under the leadership of Anton Pannekoek, though absolutely repudiating Social Democratic entry work took a similar stand of biding their time and awaiting the great spontaneous rising. In this respect the two trends have more in common than they’d like to admit, the primary difference being that the Left-Communists rejected outright United-Front work, conceiving the Popular Front as its child. Observing the reactionary nature of the period in question Bordiga famously just went back to his day job mocking those who persisted “To wait, not for this generation, but for those of the future. The situation will change. I preserve intact my mentality: the men do not count, they do not represent anything, cannot have any influence; the facts determine the new situations. And when the situations are ripe, then the men emerge”.

After the War

World War 2 ended with Revolutionary outbreaks throughout Italy, Greece, Eastern Europe and the revolutionary victory of Mao in China and Kim in Korea. The so-called golden age of Capitalism after the war pulled the rug from under the Trotskyists and Left Communists alike. Through the rise of the Eastern Bloc and the perceived threat of Communism it represented, the rise in profitability (caused by destruction of Capital Value from the war) and the development of the mixed economy on the back of such developments the dominance of Social Democracy rose again through the forging of welfare states undermining almost totally those genuine forces which stood for Communism be they Trotskyist, Left-Communist or somewhere in between. The catastrophic downturn Trotsky had predicted did not take place, this massively disoriented the Trotskyists. Both trends suffered terrible bouts of the most bizarre and hostile sectarianism remaining largely totally irrelevant.

But with the perspective of the growth of the proletariat over time and economic development along Capitalist industrial lines common to all in one way of another there still remained hope. With the development of Keynesian mixed economy, the policy of full employment and high levels of accumulation by Capital the proletariat managed to rise again with the industrial Class Struggle peaking throughout the mid 60s to the mid 70s. Low levels of unemployment and huge factories allowed workers to gain the upper hand, realising all that “supply and demand” stuff the economists go on about could actually work in their favour, if the workers were in low supply and high demand then they could demand more in exchange for their labour. The proletariat took the initiative, the strength and confidence of which informed the various civil rights struggles.

The various trends of Socialist groups through this period did indeed grow, as you’d expect but not substantially. Few actually notice this as an issue, instead simply putting the blame of failed revolutions to the betrayals of the official communists, echoing Trotsky in arguing that “The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership”, without providing much explanation as to why there is such a crisis of revolutionary leadership. The Left-Communists in different forms to that of the pre-war years became more exiting and eccentric as the Situationists in France and the Autonomists in Italy, managing to have a real impact upon the Italian strike waves up to 1977 but as far as my limited understanding goes retreating into academia after this. Though it should be emphasised the importance of feminist autonomist thought in developing Historical Materialism to account for the oppression of women in the works of Federici, Dalla Costa, etc.

The 70s to Now

Then everything got a lot worse. So called ‘Neo-Liberalism’ (which we’ll discuss more at length another time) happened in the wake of the profit crisis of the early 70s. From then to now, with all the massive changes that have taken place particularly deindustrialisation, global proletarianisation, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-industrial reconfiguring of high income economies around finance and service sectors and fundamentally the secular collapse of profit rates and accumulation, the left still soldiers on almost as though nothing has changed.

In terms of strategy the Left marches on like zombies blissfully unaware and unquestioning of their social irreverence and ineffectiveness, expecting the tide to change in the undesignated future. Since the collapse of the old workers movement, the economic reonfigurations which have taken place and the compositional changes within the working class we need to quite seriously and in open dialogue discuss these issues. The precarious zero hour worker and surplus populations to Capital’s requirements (trends groups like Endnotes elaborate upon) need to be looked at. Where the left could await the rising workers movement based as it was upon large-scale industry with some confidence in empirical developments, the configurations and historic tasks Capitalism has managed to achieve severely limits the strength of workers in industrial disputes.

The Left today in this country, in fact in most of Europe and the US, maybe further, are for the most part (unfortunately) gambling all their hopes on Social Democratic revival in response to austerity measures, Corbyn, Tsipras and Sanders form a rather boring treacherous triumvirate of well-intentioned but fundamentally of the system soft (at best) reformists. The Socialist Left has done entry work within Social Democratic organisations before and it was a failure. Why expect any different today when the odds are stacked so much more against them (the contingencies that allowed for long-term reformist projects are no longer in place). The goal of attempting to seize control of these groups or even split away large portions, again seems like old hat to me. How this figures into proletarian seizure of power at some indistinct point in the future I have no idea. Nobody I am aware of even explicitly discusses hypothetical ways this could even work. To be frank, I have absolutely no desire to simply make Capitalism less shit, it needs to be destroyed.

This is by no means to reject struggle in place of reading books and having discussions or to disparage Union struggles, that would be absurd. We obviously should support day to day struggles against low wages, high rents, cut-backs, etc. There can be no Communist victory if such day to day reformist struggles do not form a unity with our revolutionary goals. Reforms are necessary to inform the strength and confidence of the Proletariat in struggle and to reject them would only isolate us. It’s not to disparage the fact that there is some good work being done by various socialist and anti-austerity groups either but to point out limitations.

The question then is What is to be Done, we’re back in 1902 again – though without the advantage of witnessing the working class movement empirically grow from strength to strength. We need to reconceptualise what the material source of Socialist Revolution can be now Capitalist reconfiguration has thrown into question the expectancy of old workers movement eventually reviving itself again. We need to think strategically.

Unfortunately with all the criticisms outlined I do not know what the answer to these questions is. It seems apparent to me that Revolutionary regroupment of all trends interested in a Socialist society is necessary, we need to face these issues head on rather than hide from them. In the here and now actually arguing for Communism (raw and uncut) as an educative project uniting together and confronting these issues together seems to be a start. We need to put Socialism back onto its scientific footing discovered by Marx and as in his words “There is no royal road to science, and only those who do not dread the fatiguing climb of its steep paths have a chance of gaining its luminous summits.” It’s a bleak picture I know but hiding away from it won’t make it go away.