Volume 5, No. 3, March 2023
Editor: Rashed Rahman
Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ critique of the Marxism of the Second International led to the split in the International in 1914 when the opportunist parties in the International succumbed to nationalism and supported their respective states/bourgeoisies in the inter-imperialist WWI. The Bolsheviks on the other hand, adopted from day one of the outbreak of hostilities in WWI a stance of revolutionary defeatism, i.e. agitation for the defeat of Tsarism and an accompanying uprising of the workers and peasants to overthrow the old order and help usher in a socialist transformation.
Lenin’s reasoning was that WWI represented the ripening of contradictions between the older colonial/imperial powers of Europe (e.g. Britain, France, etc) and the new, rising capitalist powers (e.g. Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc) leading to a world war for the redivision of a world already divided between the former. So essentially it was a struggle by the new rising powers to wrest the colonies from older, established powers.
Although it took until 1917 for this Bolshevik strategy to bear fruit, initially in the February 1917 Revolution that overthrew the Tsarist monarchy and declared a Republic and later the October 1917 Revolution led by the Bolsheviks that set the seal on the advance towards a socialist order, it represented in practice the breach between Leninism and the Marxism of the Second International. This breach consisted of the following theoretical, strategic and tactical departures.
Russian conditions both dictated Lenin and the Bolsheviks’ political practice and moulded it. Lenin characterised the Tsarist state as feudal absolutist, with capitalism growing in its breast but the state system not yet bourgeois democratic, in contrast to older monarchies in Europe where bourgeois democracy, in greater or lesser degree, had been established. With nothing but the knout, whip and bayonet to offer the people and even soldiers suffering because of incompetent officers on the increasingly disastrous war front, the Tsarist monarchy itself created the conditions for its overthrow, first (February 1917) by a spontaneous uprising by the Russian people fed up with an increasingly meaningless war, hunger, deprivation, repression, etc, later (October 1917) by a consciously led uprising by the Bolsheviks after the soviets (workers, peasants and soldiers’ councils) had swung over to their side.
The very success of the Bolshevik Revolution produced unforeseen consequences. The received wisdom in the international communist movement emerging after the successful repulsing of the monarchist counter-revolution supported by 22 imperialist countries in the civil war that followed the Bolshevik seizure of power elevated the Russian experience to a universal ‘model’. But this ‘universal’ blueprint for revolutionary parties worldwide ran the risk, and proved vulnerable to, ignoring Lenin’s methodology of conjunctural concrete analysis of concrete situations.
It cannot be denied that the conjuncture of WWI, the split in and collapse of the Second International, and Lenin’s brilliant leadership of the Bolsheviks at every turn produced the success of the Russian Revolution. However, it was ‘forgotten’ that these were the special conditions that provided the foundations for a socialist revolution in a comparatively backward country with huge feudal hangovers. The ‘crisis’ in revolutionary socialist theory and practice manifested itself early as the hopes for revolution in Europe (especially Germany) faded and the situation turned from a revolutionary tumult to relative social and political calm, not the least because the capitalist system began to recover and grow post-WWI.
In this situation, lacking correct theoretical insights into the different strategy and tactics required by the new turn, socialist revolutionaries, despite forming the Third International, were at sea. It should not surprise us then to find that greater reliance began to be placed on the theory and practice that permeated the Second International. Socialist revolutionary parties’ interventions in this regard became increasingly indistinguishable from the Second International’s, throwing up in relief the limited break with the economism and class reductionism of the latter, all this while the infant Soviet state turned its attention to building ‘Socialism in One Country’, a response to the circumstance of the defeat and retreat of the European revolutions and the urgency of strengthening Soviet power to defend itself against the almost inevitable attacks by hostile capitalist states.
The theoretical and practical positions of the Second International found new life in the (conscious or unconscious) adoption by the communist parties of the former’s economism and class reductionism. This trend had a decided revival after Lenin’s death in 1924, and one of its effects, although not the only one, was the abandonment and repression of multi-class political and social groupings.
With the advantage of hindsight it can be seen that the victory of the proletariat in seizing and holding on to power and its commitment to the abolition of classes is a necessary but not sufficient condition to eliminate the material basis of their continued existence, i.e. all demons are not slain by a class-based victory. The party of revolution is not a passive representative of the proletariat, but a relatively autonomous vanguard. However, this should not be read as the absolute primacy of the ‘party’ over politics, mass organisations, internal party democracy, and the relationship to revolutionary workers’ power at the base.
The Third International (later dubbed Comintern) failed to negotiate the specific terrain of struggle in each country. Its break with the Second International parties, many of whom still enjoyed majority support amongst the working class, left the newly formed Communist parties as rump parties with rump support in their working class base, and the double-edged sword of dependence on Moscow, unleavened by the distinction between the Soviet state’s interests and those of the global revolutionary movement. Whenever a contradiction arose between these respective interests, independent thinking and initiative were progressively weeded out in favour of deadening conformity.
Whether the Comintern was wedded consciously to the ‘general crisis of capitalism’ theory or not, in practice it seemed to be waiting for this particular Godot. What came as a ‘surprise’ to such thinking was the capability demonstrated by capitalism of enormously advancing the productive forces and overcoming crises (with the help, if necessary, of concessionary reforms). Part of such reforms were the incremental steps taken by capitalist societies towards bourgeois democracy, a construct that introduced the dual weapons in the hands of the bourgeoisie to rule by manufacturing consent where possible, by force if necessary.
Lenin’s necessary distinctions on the different problems faced by the revolution outside the Soviet Union, which he spelt out in his later years, were either not recognised or not paid sufficient importance to. Leninism was reduced to the pre-revolution Bolshevik strategy being universalised, leading to its ossification as the mandatory single model for revolution the world over. Lenin’s vision appears to have been a united front as a long term strategy for revolution in the advanced capitalist countries that would help the break with the economism and reformism of the social democrats of the Second International, yet not mechanically or simply by mimicking the tactics of the Bolsheviks.
But perhaps the greatest blunder of the Comintern was the failure, through the 1930s, to distinguish between bourgeois democracy and fascism, except as too little too late during the ‘Popular Fronts’ period (1935-39). At the 7th Comintern Congress 1935, belatedly, the existence, even centrality of the terrain of popular democratic struggles was recognised: the need for the proletariat and its parties to actively participate in such struggles and the necessity for communists to become involved in the institutions and practices of bourgeois democracy (however limited the space this affords). This participation would not be just for propaganda purposes but to produce real political effects as part of a longer political strategy. Multi-class fronts became the order of the day.
The rise of Nazism constituted a two-fold defeat: the failure of post-WWI social democratic reformism and the failure (or irrelevance) of the Bolshevik insurrectionary model after 1919 (by which time the German and Hungarian revolutions had been crushed). Even after the defeat of Nazi Germany by first and foremost the Soviet Union at great cost, the Leninist legacy was never restored. In the advanced capitalist countries, the popular fronts against fascism transmogrified into popular fronts against monopoly capitalism, betraying a weakness that reduced the proletariat to an auxiliary force of the popular fronts rather than their leading light. It is this increasingly reformist tendency that eventually evolved into Eurocommunism, which itself proved to be a revolutionary dead end.
(To be continued)