The fable they are spinning us almost everywhere is the same, taking advantage of the credulity and divisions within the ‘left’, and the inertia and apathy of ‘reasonable people’: a few unscrupulous demagogues, appealing to the deepest and worst instincts of the electorate and turning them into the so‑called ‘will of the people’ have managed, as is allowed by the rules of parliamentarism, to ascend to the heights of State power.
Once settled in their palaces in Washington, Rome, Westminster, Vienna, Budapest and elsewhere, with sleeves rolled up, these young men, arriving in power after all the swingeing cuts and fire sales of previous administrations, immediately set about changing things, by means of daily politically incorrect pronouncements that ignore economic reality and show complete disdain for ‘diplomatic niceties’ and feigned concern for the safety of the country’s finances, the savings of fellow citizens, and the sacrosanct and inviolable democratic rules they decide should continue to be observed (or ignored).
We need to unravel this horribly tangled muddle of ideas.
State power is essentially a material thing, about control of armaments and a disciplined hierarchy of armed men. This complex century’s old structure has at its apex a tier of top management, formed by the government. But this is organic in nature and it responds to the functions of the State: the defense of the interests of the social class from which it emanates. In modern times financial capital everywhere monopolizes the running of the State; it alone chooses government personnel, who govern, yes, but according to its directives.
That it is the electors who choose is just a cock-and-bull story: the whole of the mass media, which easily shapes so‑called ‘public opinion’, is owned and controlled by big capital, which uses it to spread their lies; and if they quarrel among themselves it is for show or due to internal conflicts within its colossal interest groups. Electoral campaigns now cost billions.
Those who really hold power – constituted by a system of consolidated personal relations with the leaders of those armed men, and certainly not by the will of the people, which like a weathercock can be, and is, turned this way and that. Grand coalitions, ‘supply and confidence agreements’, Trump’s hiring and firing, and even the bi‑cephalous vice-presidency bringing right and left together (an Italian masterpiece) entertain the revolting bourgeoisie and its media with their knockabout brawls, while the real business goes on as normal.
But behind every one of these spectacles – half comedy, half tragedy – there lurks a harsh reality: the material fact of the crisis, which is pushing the formerly consolidated domestic and international equilibriums to breaking point. Here the crisis is imminent, there less so, but it exists on a global scale. The schizophrenia and confusion just reflect the way things are. The time when it will be every-man-for-himself is fast approaching, and the floundering of those who are drowning never appears particularly rational, elegant or dignified.
It is also true that, if in the turnover of its personnel the ruling class is now putting forward individual nonentities, and not only in the parliamentary theatre but also among government representatives, it is because the war between its fractions is so bitter and irresolvable that it renders any stable solution or compromise impossible. The election of ‘populists’ such as Donald Trump is an indicator not of American capitalism’s strength and its will to be ‘great again’, but of the profundity of its crisis, and the ridiculous clowns doing their turns in the media circus are only there because the ruling class now finds it impossible to recruit anyone better. They are therefore a sign of the bourgeois class’s objective weakness, which the proletariat need neither complain about nor fear; indeed, it should celebrate and rejoice, not bothering too much about the eccentric threats and peculiar bragging from the ‘tough guy’.
To counter the bourgeois class, be they ‘tough guys’ or ‘pushovers’, the only way forward is through organization and proletarian class struggle.
In most countries, the bourgeoisie finds it useful to change its political mediators often. As far as inter-State relations goes, what better than to have a constant turnover of government personnel in order to maneuver around, try out new alliances, and, if necessary, return to the previous alliances on the following day. Or else it can speak in threatening tones to the European Union, like merchants do when haggling, to get a better compromise.
With actual war approaching, the commercial war continues apace; the shift in the respective sizes of the imperialist giants, with China tending to outstrip the others, is putting more and more strain on the old equilibriums. There are no more safe ports, and the storm may sever the moorings of the various national vessels, pushing them far and wide in search of a safe landing place. And the lousy national bourgeoisies of second-rate powers will certainly not hesitate to find a new boss; or if possible, more than one, while continuing to rant on about ‘sovereignty’. Witness, for example, the Brexiters’ groveling to Trump.
On the domestic level, on the other hand, what better than to create a huge uproar, to have a permanent revolving door of politicians to confuse and distract the working class, supposedly wanting to protect them from ‘immigrants’, from the ‘Brussels bureaucrats’, from ‘dishonest politicians’, ‘the Westminster bubble’ etc., etc. If there is any charity to be bestowed, they try to ensure that credit for it goes to the ‘right‑wing’ governments. If not, they rekindle antifascist frontism which, along with the mythical ‘specter of fascism’, diverts the working‑class struggle from its immediate and historic objectives to that of maintaining a characteristic fiction of bourgeois rule: democracy.
Because democracy is dead. So dead in fact that even professors in the bourgeois universities are sure of it; and when they are honest, they even rule out the possibility of reanimating it.
This is not actually very precise. If by democracy we mean power being shared between the ruling class and the ruled, such a democracy can never die because it never existed: even the most perfect democracy is a form designed to hide the fact that control is being exerted over the working class. If what they mean is, instead, a democracy of the bourgeoisie, the landowners, and the numerous petty‑bourgeois sub‑classes, we have to point out that the death certificate for this democracy was issued over a century ago, at the time when international imperialist and monopolist capitalism came of age.
Since then, although in different ways and at different times, the working classes, small tradesmen and farmers of city and countryside, merchants, intellectuals, professionals, etc., have been progressively excluded from any share in State power, and their political parties have either fallen apart or been transformed into agencies for social consensus that are dependent on the State and have their own paid staff.
The petty bourgeois strata, increasingly reduced from carrying out productive functions to simple micro‑rentiers, no longer have the energy to think or act, even to defend themselves. Incapable of equipping themselves with any corporative or political expression of their own and reduced to impotence and infamy, they implore the State to give them ‘more security’ against the ‘invasion’ of desperate proletarians from the south; penniless, but very much alive. In this vile and rancorous world, patriotism and nationalism are now used to negate, not affirm; to exclude, not to include. The first and fundamental ideal of the petty bourgeoisie has triumphed: individualism. And from on high, the loved (or reviled) Great Leader, craps on them with his endless tweets.
From time to time the petty bourgeoisie expresses its desperation by means of spontaneous and disorganized protests and rebellious actions, which, however, lack any kind of historical or immediate program (such as the gilets jaunes protests in France); it will always face the challenge of submitting to one of the only two solutions that history now has on offer: either the anti-proletarian dictatorship of big capital, and its parties, or the anti-capitalist dictatorship of the working class, and its party.
Thus, the democracy of the various petty-bourgeois sections ends up effectively voting against itself, committing suicide by willingly yielding to the Salvinis, Orbans, Bolsanaros, Trumps, Kaczynskis and the Putins… Who, on the other hand, are not wrong to declare themselves to be ‘super-democrats’, and that the ‘technocrats’ the ‘rich’ and the ‘global elite’ who criticize them, are ‘anti-democratic’ because nobody voted for them.
Nor can it be maintained, that the League (Italy) or the Brexit Party (Britain) or Fidesz (Hungary) are any ‘more fascist’ than the other parties, in the sense of being more anticommunist and anti-worker. Because fascism and democracy have merged the one into the other; they are just different forms, compatible with one another, of bourgeois State government.
So much is this so, that different forms of democracy alone conceal the uncontested dictatorship of capital over the whole of society. These, however, are now so threadbare that they no longer really work even as a cover. The recall to ancient unifying antifascist mythology, such as Italy and France’s ‘war‑time Resistance movement’, or Britain’s ‘Dunkirk spirit’ or for that matter Germany’s post‑war ‘reconstruction’ and ‘economic miracle’, has been giving Europe’s proletarians indigestion for more than 70 years; it has now gone stale and is increasingly seen as an insult to our intelligence, especially when faced with the chronic and extreme degeneracy of the phony parties, all the way from those formerly known to be Socialist, ‘Communist’ (i.e. Stalinist) or Labour, all of them identical in their inconsistency, to the ‘deplorable’ right wing parties.
We are paying today for the antifascist swindle. Due to the present weakness of our movement those with anti‑democratic sentiments within the proletariat are still being attracted not to communism, but to the ‘anti‑system’ parties, which are actually just as capitalist and just as aligned against the workers and communists as those of ‘the political establishment’.
A dictatorship, a one‑party regime, therefore, looms on the horizon. Do we dread it? No. Because this very regime, behind all the flapping around in the parliamentary henhouse, is already here! It is just that the big bourgeois class, just as it will sack a PR agency if it costs too much and produces too little, sometimes does likewise with the pseudo-parties gathered around it, consolidating its expenditure on just one. The ‘fascist peril’ does not therefore exist, because fascism is already rampant everywhere, thinly veiled by the ever more threadbare electoral rites.
With the alibi of the dictatorship of the majority behind it, capital, which always has the majority, can already get all of its abominations passed democratically, imposing on society its infamous superstitions and horrible vexations, which in themselves are often perfidiously oblique in their attack on the working class: the persecution of women, or religious, racial and national minorities etc. In an agonized paroxysm it has lost all material and ideal sense of direction: democracy/fascism, reality/spectacle, true/fake, man/woman, racism/globalization, nationalism/imperialism, agnosticism/piety… The one unifying point of reference remains the Gods of the Market and Profit. In its catastrophic collapse, capital’s lack of humanity is clearly visible in the obscene excesses of its high priests.
And is our liberating revolution, now that it has been condemned to minority status, therefore postponed indefinitely? The ABC of our historical materialism has taught us that there is a time for everything. The sharpening of the bourgeois global crisis at particular historical turning points obliges the proletariat to organize and rebel. But the vast bulk of proletarians will not know they are making a revolution, nor why they are doing it; no‑one will have voted for communism. Only a significant minority from within it will have gathered around the class party. The latter arrives from a distance, with its own doctrine, confirmed and refined by history and the only one truly free from all the errors, beliefs and prejudices imposed by class societies over thousands of years, the worst of these societies being the democratic one. This party alone can know, see, and predict for the class.
ideological bankruptcy of the ex‑social democratic and
pseudo-communist parties, their surrender to parties which are openly
bourgeois, belligerent, chauvinist and racist, as well as being a
kind of payback for all their old lies and hypocrisies, marks a step
towards the global crisis of capital and therefore, through
historical necessity, a step towards its forceful destruction by the
communist revolution. It is bound to be an anti-democratic government
that will try to bar the way to our revolution, after all democratic
ones have failed to halt its advance. The ‘right‑wing’ face of
Capital, the last class‑based society, is in fact its true face, and
it is against it, and those who want to disguise and embellish it,
that the working class will have to fight, and emerge victorious.
In our account of the critical events and proletarian movements in Germany from 1918 to 1923, our party highlights a series of theoretical and tactical errors that were made by the communist leadership in those momentous years. It must be stated in advance that this should not be interpreted as dishonoring the huge sacrifices made by the revolutionary proletariat; nor is it in any way a dismissal of the legacy of the German working class as a whole, or a matter of assigning “blame” to specific individuals who put themselves at the head of the political and trade union organs of the German proletariat.
Nor are we such poor materialists as to assert that, even if the communist movement in Germany had adopted the perfectly “correct” strategy and tactics, victory would have been assured. It was the objective situation, both in Germany and internationally, that made it at least challenging, and perhaps even impossible, to achieve victory and to produce a party with a firmly established doctrine and well connected to the working-class movement.
Nor should our critique be taken to mean that we reject all of the “positives” of the revolutionary movement in Germany.
However, in every single case, it is vitally important to understand that these positives contained their own contradictions, both in terms of principles and in practice – again, for material reasons that have been clearly identified in our texts.
The most onerous of these objective circumstances was the hold of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) over the working class in general and, in particular, over its most advanced and militant representatives, including the leadership of the young Communist Party of Germany (KPD).
The weight of tradition weighed heavily on the working class, both in the leadership and at the base.
Hardly surprising: the SPD was the world’s largest political party. It had been the party of the German working class since 1875. It had survived Bismarck’s Anti-Socialist Laws. It was the bedrock of the Second International. Yet by the outbreak of the First World War, it was a State within a State, inextricably bound to the destiny of German imperialism.
In retrospect, it is easy to see that the degeneration of the SPD must inevitably lead to its abandonment of proletarian internationalism. But at the time, it came as a great shock. When Lenin saw a copy of Vorwärts, the SPD newspaper, which proclaimed the SPD’s active support for the war, he simply refused to believe it; he was convinced that it was a forgery by the German General Staff.
He was not the only one to be deceived. The glaring cognitive dissonance of the socialist left in August 1914 – not just in Germany, but internationally – was embodied in two of Luxemburg’s most significant utterances: “After August 4, 1914, social democracy is nothing but a nauseating corpse,” she correctly stated, and yet, “Better the worst working-class party than none at all”.
But the fact is, the SPD was no longer a party of the working class.
The unwillingness of the opposition faction led by Luxemburg, Liebknecht and Jogiches, the International Socialists, later the Spartacists, to break with the SPD or the left-leaning independent social democratic party (USPD) because “that is where the masses were” was a grave mistake, leaving them badly prepared when the German proletariat finally “awoke from its stupor”, as Luxemburg herself foresaw in her “Junius” pamphlet.
The desire to “go to the masses” was a theoretical and tactical error that would dog the proletarian movement throughout the wartime and post‑war period.
From the first days of the insurrection of 1918‑19, when soldiers and sailors in particular responded to the calls of the Spartacists, when, in the streets of Berlin, it seemed that the fate of the German revolution must be decided, social democracy – whether majoritarian or independent – multiplied its presence to crush the impetus of the masses, putting itself completely at the service of the “Fatherland in danger” by raising fears of a French invasion, presenting the insurgents as “savages”, and mobilizing all forces first to prevent the extension of the movement and then moving on to the massacre of the young Communist Party.
The role of the SPD in this crushing of the revolutionary movement is well known. Less well known is the role of the independents, who always posed as the friend of the revolutionary proletariat, only to leave it in the lurch: “The Devil hath power/To assume a pleasing shape” (Hamlet). At all of the decisive moments, the USPD provided the best weapons for the defense of the bourgeois regime, by disorienting the masses when all the conditions existed for the assault on power; the Scheidemanns and the Noskes were then called upon to complete this treacherous work as the executioner of the working class.
The savage decapitation of the communist movement that followed in the tragic days of mid‑January in Berlin marks an important stage in bringing the proletarian movement to a shuddering halt. But if these were the negative consequences of the defeat, this first baptism of fire of the young communist party in the armed struggle, and the exposure of social-democracy’s role as guard‑dog for the capitalist regime, were the elements that determined the orientation of great swathes of the working class towards communism, towards the Russian revolution. Millions of German proletarians were won over to revolutionary communism.
Nonetheless, as later events unfolded, every positive development was soon confronted with a countertendency. It was always one step forward, one step back:
– Workers councils were rapidly established and seized power in many German cities and regions; but they ceded power at a national level and lost any political content. For many on the Communist Left, the “workers’ council” became an organizational fetish, while the key questions of political power and arming the broader proletariat were neglected;
– The German Communist Party was (finally) established in January 1919, with a fundamentally clear program; but it was totally unprepared for the onslaught, to the extent that it was unable to protect its most experienced leaders, notably Liebknecht, Luxemburg and Jogiches, who were murdered soon afterwards;
– Millions of young workers, soldiers and sailors flocked to the new party; but frustrated by the hesitations and vacillations of right‑wing and centrist leaders such as Levi, the exclusion of the Communist Left at the rigged Heidelberg Congress of 1919, the merger with the left wing of the USPD, and the embrace of parliamentarism, most militants (especially in the north, including Berlin) left to join the Communist Workers’ Party (KAPD);
– The Kapp putsch of 1920 was brought to a halt by a general strike (perhaps the most effective general strike in history) and spontaneous armed struggle of the proletariat; but the KPD surrendered the initiative to reformists whose objectives were limited to “defense of the Republic”, an early manifestation of proto-antifascism;
– In the Ruhr and parts of Saxony, the working class armed itself and went onto the offensive in response to the Kapp putsch; but the KPD offered no decisive central leadership, and where in coalition (or “loyal opposition”) in regional “workers’ governments”, it actively prevented the workers from seizing more arms;
– There was a rapid growth of militant industrial unionism in the Unionen; but, under the influence of anarcho-syndicalism, these often (though not always) rejected the need for political action (which meant, for example, that the AAUD under Otto Rühle’s direction undermined the insurrection of March 1921);
– The VKPD, to the jubilation of the KAPD, sanctioned the immediate seizure of power in March 1921; but when the revolutionary Red Army acted on this, the leadership hung them out to dry and, after the inevitable defeat, thousands of Red Guardsmen were summarily executed or thrown in jail;
– The Red Armies themselves raised the hopes of the most militant workers; but failed to win the active support of the powerful industrial workers, who, crucially, remained inside the factories;
– The KAPD adopted some positions close to our own; but, lacking firm and experienced leadership, it soon broke into numerous factions embracing non‑Marxist positions (workerist anti-intellectualism, the councilist tendency, the terrorist tendency, national bolshevism…)
– The revolutionary working class made a heroic “last stand” in 1923, mainly in Hamburg; but “the party’s military preparation, began at feverish speed, was divorced from the party’s political activity, which was carried on at previous peacetime tempo. The masses did not understand the party and did not keep step with it” (Trotsky). The new leadership hypocritically assigned the blame to Luxemburg’s legacy of “spontaneism”.
There were other factors at work.
History had not yet produced a truly global communist party with consistently solid and common Marxist foundations, well trained in facing the common political enemies in the streets and in the media, and fully rooted in workers’ organizations within which it was held in high esteem for the continuity and effectiveness of its directives.
The Third International, constrained by both the need to promote world revolution and the need to shore up the embryonic socialist State in Russia, inevitably sent mixed signals and contradictory advice, and could provide little assistance. Given the weakness of the German Communist Party, Lenin’s Left‑wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder just disoriented and demoralized German communists and caused further schisms. The defeat of the German proletariat was moreover reflected in the defeat of a series of revolutions started in various other countries.
Following the actions of 1920, 1921 and 1923, literally tens of thousands of the best revolutionary militants were sentenced to long prison sentences. Many of the KPD’s resources were focused on getting them amnestied. This in turn accelerated the process of the integration of the KPD within the framework of the bourgeois Weimar Republic, its courts and its various parliamentary committees, lobbies and pressure groups etc. By the time these militants were released (most of them in 1928) the KPD had been fully Stalinized.
The militants who returned to the KPD were given a choice: accept the new party discipline or take the consequences. Troublemakers such as Max Hölz, leader of the Central German insurrection, were shipped off to Moscow and executed by Stalin in his anti‑German purge of the early thirties.
We refer to the events that took place in Germany from 1918 to 1923 as “The German Tragedy”. But this was a tragedy in the Shakespearean sense, in which the leading protagonist, the German proletariat, waged a heroic and admirable struggle, but was brought down by a combination of its own flaws and forces beyond its control.
The physical and intellectual counter-revolution that followed was more intense and devastating in Germany than anywhere else. Ernst Thälmann, the leader of the KPD from 1925, soon perfected the Stalinist art of deploying pseudo-revolutionary language – wrongly characterized by Trotskyists as “ultra-leftism” – to denounce German communism’s greatest leaders.
Thälmann called for the “sharpest fight against the remnants of Luxemburgism” and described it as a “theoretical platform of counter-revolutionary directions”. In the divided Germany that followed 1945, Rosa Luxemburg’s legacy was further mutilated on both sides of the Berlin Wall. Walter Ulbricht, Chairman of the Socialist Unity Party (SED) called Luxemburgism a “mutation of social democracy”. Her Dialectic of Spontaneity and Organization, criticized by Lenin in What Is to Be Done? for what he regarded as its tactical errors, was taken out of the context of the struggle against revisionism and dismissed in a way Lenin never intended.
Luxemburg always believed in the need for a political party, and in 1918 she and Liebknecht established the first Communist Party outside Russia.
Later, as the DDR needed its own home-grown icons, Liebknecht and Luxemburg were idolized as martyrs, as they still are by the German Left Party (Die Linke), whose main political research organization, which pumps out wretched papers calling for a more caring, “green” capitalism, is named the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. Even more nauseatingly, Luxemburg has been embraced by various liberals, “democratic socialists”, libertarians and new‑age thinkers. The bourgeoisie loves dead revolutionaries.
This latter trend was initiated by Paul Levi. Levi left the KPD after aligning with the Serrati faction at the Livorno Congress in 1921, joined the USPD, and then the SPD in 1922. In that year he planned to republish precisely those writings of Rosa Luxemburg where she had differed with Lenin. Lenin commented that Paul Levi’s intention was to get into the good graces of the bourgeoisie and his new (i.e., old!) party. Lenin famously wrote:
“We shall reply to this by quoting two lines from a Russian fable, ‘Eagles may at times fly lower than hens, but hens can never rise to the height of eagles’ […] But in spite of her mistakes she was and remains for us an eagle. And not only will Communists all over the world cherish her memory, but her biography and her complete works will serve as useful manuals for training many generations of communists all over the world” [our emphasis].
The other left current that might have emerged with some credit was within the KAPD. From the start, the Italian left criticized the KAPD’s “libertarian and syndicalist tendencies” (as discussed in the third section of this report) but the critique did not prevent Il Soviet from recognizing the combativity that the KAPD exhibited during the Kapp putsch and contrasted it with the passivity of the KPD:
“The new organization is to a large extent more combative and revolutionary and has developed a broader activity amongst the masses; its partisans are the workers who tolerate neither the lack of intransigence which the old party has sometimes shown, nor its conversion to parliamentarism, which took it close to the Independents, who are taking advantage of its tactics to gain credence in front of the proletariat and the International” (“The situation in Germany and the communist movement”, Il Soviet no. 18, 11 July 1920).
Our current initially hoped to see the KAPD reintegrated into the KPD and regarded the greater danger (as in Italy with Serrati) as coming from the opportunism of the left USPD. But in Germany as well as Italy (and elsewhere) the Communist International pushed for the integration of communists with left social democrats to create a mass party – in Germany, the United Communist Party (UKPD). This proved disastrous. Left Communists never judge the strength of a party by the number of membership cards it issues, but the instruction from the Comintern was to “go to where the masses are”.
The fundamental problem with the KAPD, however, and the cause of its disintegration into factionalism, lay precisely in its origins: it brought together various currents that were only united by their common disgust at the centrism and opportunism of the KPD. It attracted the best militants, but its programs were inevitably a mish‑mash and, once the revolutionary tide had turned, all of its “tendencies” ran aground, one by one. Once the KAPD cut its ties to the Third International, debate between the Italian Left and the Communist Left not only in Germany, but also in England, the Low Countries and Bulgaria, became impossible and they grew further and further apart.
“I was, I am, I will be”
Germany offers the one and only attempt so far at communist revolution by the proletariat of a modern country, that is to say, a country that was highly industrialized and had a constitutional-democratic political system.
Despite the many mistakes, the “German Tragedy” provides a powerful inspiration for the working-class militants of today and tomorrow. The German and international proletariat must rescue its history, and the experiences of the revolutionary workers who took part in its struggles, from the official commentariat and hagiographers of the bourgeoisie.
This will provide an essential weapon in the intellectual arsenal of the German working class when it once again rises from its slumber, as one day it must. The lessons drawn from the events in Germany from 1918 to 1923 have played no small part in the formulation of the program of the International Communist Party, echoing Rosa Luxemburg’s words: “I was, I am, I will be”.
Commentators from across the bourgeois political spectrum have done their best to suffocate this cry. We reclaim it. Only in this way should the German revolutionaries be remembered. Only in this way will the dead of yesterday rise again to inspire the revolutionaries of tomorrow.
“We may die, but our program will live!”.
The cooperative movement
At the Baltimore Convention of 1866 a general issue was also discussed, which concerned the inadequacy of the union struggle in defending the working class from the poverty in which it was being held, with its ups and downs, by the bourgeoisie. Even when successes occurred, the relief was only temporary, either because of the high costs of the struggle, or because the bosses soon started to erode the real value of the economic gains.
It was necessary to find a new weapon for better defending the workers, one that would allow them to raise themselves up from the state of degradation in which many often found themselves. Cooperativism came to be seen as such a weapon. But, even if this was passed off as new, it was not; indeed, its efficacy had already been shown to be very marginal by previous experiences, most notably in the United Kingdom.
Cooperativism developed particularly in the years immediately following the Civil War, both in the realm of production and that of consumption. The producers’ cooperative that had most success was that of the ironworkers, set up in New York State with the involvement of Sylvis. For the first six months, 35 ironworkers earned, through wages and profits, considerably more than their colleagues who were dependent on individual companies. Its success encouraged the birth of other cooperatives across the whole country, which in 1868 united in an association.
But it was soon clear that the outside world imposed laws that could not be ignored, and which shaped any kind of economic activity, including that of cooperatives. The laws of competition soon constrained the cooperatives to become increasingly competitive, which required the gradual abandonment of cooperative principles. The cooperatives’ members demanded ever greater profits, and to achieve this it was necessary to reduce wages, increase working hours and disrespect the rules requested by the labor union. Rather than representing a touchstone that the bourgeoisie would have had to imitate, the cooperatives gradually became the inspiration for the bosses’ offensive against the workers.
Cooperatives in other trades, such as the carpenters and typographers, were short‑lived. They were regularly denounced by the press as examples of French communism, and the industrialists sold below cost to prevent them from creating a market for themselves; in addition, the management was often not up to the job; but the main difficulty was that of finding capital, the lifeblood of the society in which they had to operate. The cooperatives had to convince the owners of capital to invest in ventures whose declared purpose was the abolition of the system of wage labor. The bankers, of course, asked for high rates of interest, and before long the entire cooperative movement, or rather that part which did not go completely bankrupt, degenerated into joint stock companies more interested in profit than the emancipation of labor. As a result the cooperative movement, defeated in theory by Marxism, and in practice by experience in all countries, was even less fortunate in the United States than elsewhere, which also applied to consumer cooperatives.
One consequence of the unfortunate fate of the cooperatives was that many union leaders convinced themselves that the problem lay not in the impossibility of the coexistence of incompatible forms of production, or the fact that cooperation was condemned to assume every characteristic of openly capitalist production – but in the fact that the bankers did not provide funds. The objective therefore had to be a monetary reform that would allow the workers to leave their condition of wage slavery, with the State providing them with funds at interest rates fixed by law. We do not want to provide a critique of the movement for monetary reform at this point, since it did not last long and would not subsequently have any appeal within the American proletariat. Though at the time, it was one of the factors that distracted workers and leaders from the union struggle, the sole defense, if only partial, against the arrogance of the bosses.
The need for political action had become evident once it was understood that this was the only way to obtain lasting regulatory improvements; among these the very possibility of forming labor unions had to be definitively and clearly affirmed, and therefore defended against established power. The miners were highly active. They managed to impose less savage terms on the organization of work and on the safety provisions in the mines, which claimed hundreds of victims every year. Another aspect of general interest that lent itself to political activity was the eight‑hour movement, of which we will say more later; another problem was the importation of Chinese labor power, which tended to reduce minimum salaries to intolerable levels.
The National Labor Union moved in the direction of setting up a true Labor Party, also because local experiences of political initiatives, sometimes improvised, as in Massachusetts, had given rise to encouraging election results, at the expense of the Republican Party, which was still posing as the defender of the working class. But the triumph of the view that the solution to all ills lay in monetary reform (a view also shared by Sylvis), and the growing penetration of professional politicians attracted by the rich reserves of votes in working class districts, meant that the working class gradually detached itself: at the 1872 Congress only one delegate in four represented the working class; there would be no others in which representatives of the workers would take part.
But despite its short existence, the National Labor Union constituted an important stage in the development of class consciousness in the American proletariat. First of all it had reunited the forces dispersed across a nation that was starting to become large. It was one of the very first organizations to demand wage equality for women, and had women among its leaders; it was the first organization with African-American delegates; the first to have a powerful lobby in Washington, which asked for the creation of a Ministry of Labor. It fought for the eight‑hour day, for better work‑related legislation, against the massive allocation of land to the railroad companies and for a greater allocation of land to those who could work it. It was the representative of the International in America, and sent delegates to its congresses. Its most serious weakness was in placing all its hopes in monetary reform, to be achieved through electoral struggle, while it overlooked actual union activity, which lost it the sympathy of the class. A class which was showing itself ready for political action independent of the principal bourgeois parties.
The eight hours
The struggle to reduce working hours came to unite the workers over and above professional and geographical boundaries, and therefore making them receptive to political action. We have seen how, since the 1830s, the rallying cry of the ten‑hour day had mobilized broad layers of proletarians, with partially positive results in the 1840s. In reality there were however already milieus within the working class that had no intention of contenting themselves with the ten‑hour day, even if this had been won.
In the 1850s the expectation of the eight‑hour working day won over one labor union after another, and only the war succeeded in temporarily stopping North America’s proletarians from demanding it. Though not entirely, since in 1863 the bourgeois press denounced the popularization of this objective, which was blamed of course on “immigrants”. Though it is probable that foreign workers often had a greater class consciousness and were therefore highly active, this was not the case with all of them: it was true for the Germans, but not for the immigrants from undeveloped countries, such as the Italians, who were often brought in precisely as scabs and to break strikes. The refrain that the most radical rallying cries emanated from abroad is one that the American bourgeoisie revives every time it finds itself in difficulty confronted with workers’ agitation, to be able to persecute one part of the class undisturbed, in order to terrorize all of it.
In reality, however, the principal leader of the struggle for the eight‑hour day was a thoroughly American member of the Machinists and Blacksmiths Union, Ira Steward. Steward, who came from Boston, was convinced that it was impossible to obtain a reduction in the working day with union struggles within a specific trade or locality. According to him, it was necessary to struggle to obtain a federal law on the eight‑hour day: it was possible to reach local accords, but they would exclude the majority of the class, dividing its power. The labor unions, by contrast, were not disposed to concentrate all their energy on this one objective, which for Steward, conversely, amounted to one that would have moved all of the problems confronting the class towards a resolution. For this reason, in 1864 he contributed to the foundation of a specific organization, the Workingmen’s Convention, later called the Labor Reform Association, whose declared aim was the eight‑hour day, considered to be the first step towards the emancipation of the American working class. In the same year, in Europe, the recently founded International took a similar position.
The movement for the eight‑hour day rapidly spread throughout the land, and also had a decent following among farmworkers. Its importance became evident after the war, when the demobilized soldiers started to fill city streets in search of employment. Marx writes in Das Kapital: “The first fruit of the Civil War was an agitation for the eight‑hour day – a movement which ran with express speed from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from New England to California”.
Therefore, at the Baltimore Convention of 1866, the enthusiasm for the rallying cry of the eight‑hour day was high, as can be recognized from the resolution: “The first and great necessity of the present, to free the labor of this country from capitalist slavery, is the passing of a law by which eight hours shall be the normal working day in all States of the American Union. We are resolved to put forth all our strength until this glorious result is attained”.
As we have seen, the movement was successful, and such was the show of force and organization that on June 25, 1868, the Federal government approved a law for the eight‑hour day for its own employees. In addition, six States and numerous municipalities approved legislation to establish the eight‑hour day. But, even though the workers initially thought they had won, it was not difficult for the bosses to circumvent the law, as indeed was the case with the ten‑hour day, which was disregarded almost everywhere in these years. In fact, one of the arguments of the trade union agitators was that, even if the law for the eight‑hour day had not been passed, at least it would have promoted observance of the older law for ten hours. Not only did the private bosses not apply it, but also the State and Federal departments, when they conceded it, reduced wages in proportion, and this also continued even after President Grant, on two separate occasions, specified in later legal regulations that the reduction in working hours should not have entailed any reduction in pay.
It was soon realized that by relying only on the vote and moral pressure simply brought about legal regulations that no bourgeois felt bound to respect. The period between 1868 and 1873 therefore saw a wave of struggles for a true eight‑hour day; and in many cases these struggles delivered the desired results, city by city, trade by trade, factory by factory. However, as had often happened in the past, all of these gains were wiped away by the crisis of 1873.
But the movement for the eight‑hour day had not been useless. The understanding of the fact that the struggles extended beyond cities, beyond States, beyond all frontiers, including trades, would remain in the memory of the American working class, fluid and unstable though it was; they could bear precious fruits – it was only a matter of knowing how to keep these safe. Regulatory and legislative gains could be achieved, but only if the exercise of organized force by as large a proportion of the proletariat as possible was linked to political action. And the political action had to be independent, freed from the traditional parties.
Even though it was openly recognized that, regardless of how hard men’s conditions of life and work might have been, those of women were systematically worse, trade unionism in the first years after the war still ignored women, when it did not assume attitudes of open hostility to their confrontations. Women in work, it was said, only worsened the situation created by post‑war unemployment.
On the other hand, it was precisely the war that allowed women to enter productive activities that were traditionally “masculine”, including factory work in various sectors. In many cases they were war‑widows, or the wives of invalids. And the bosses were hesitant about discarding them, as their output was practically identical to men while they cost roughly half as much to employ.
The problem was a serious one for the labor unions, since in the meantime the average pay had fallen to very low, unsustainable levels. The rallying cry was therefore the unionization of female workers, which women certainly did not oppose. However, there were few labor unions ready to accept them into their ranks, and in many cases female unions therefore had to be established, including those for tobacco, clerical, dressmaking, umbrella, textile and shoe workers etc.
This time the workers gave their support, helping with organizational activity, providing leaders and orators, and also helping with the collection of funds or through solidarity strikes when necessary; because of course the bosses, while quite happy to pay less money for female work, became furious when female workers dared to raise their heads and demand less onerous conditions. In fact the demand, also supported by male workers, was for equal wages for equal work.
This positive attitude also emerged from the start within the National Labor Union, which promised support for the “daughters of labor of this country” at the 1866 Baltimore Convention. Two years later a woman leader would be elected deputy secretary of the Union. This made an impression on Marx, who wrote to Kugelmann on December 12, 1868: “Great progress was evident in the last Congress of the American ‘Labor Union’ in that among other things, it treated working women with complete equality. While in this respect the English, and still more the gallant French, are burdened with a spirit of narrow-mindedness. Anybody who knows anything of history knows that great social changes are impossible without the feminine ferment. Social progress can be measured exactly by the social position of the fair sex (the ugly ones included)”.
An attempt to get suffrage organizations also accepted within the Union did not succeed: there were few workers ready to accept complete equality of rights; in effect, it would have meant a political contamination of an organization that had to maintain the unity of proletarians on the level of struggle for economic demands. On the other hand female organizations found a strong defender in the National Labor Union, at least insofar as, and to the extent that, it was strong itself. The Union’s decline left women on their own: in 1873 their conditions were no better than they were ten years earlier, and only a couple of national trade unions had accepted them with full rights, among around thirty that existed at the time. There was still everything to do for trade union organization among America’s working women, and many years of hard struggle would still be needed before all gender-based differences disappeared in trade union organizations.
At the end of the war the dilemma faced by all Americans, but above all proletarians, was what was to become of Americans of African origin. After a bloody war, which was allegedly fought to free them, someone proposed that perhaps it would be simpler to return them to slavery to overcome the post‑war problem of their sudden availability on the labor market. Others proposed sending them back to Africa; in effect a movement for “return” was born, which also brought about the establishment of a new State on Africa’s Atlantic coast, Liberia, which still today boasts a flag with a star, one, and stripes, almost identical to that of the USA.
But of course, the North American bourgeoisie was far from wanting to lose the rich reserve of cheap labor that the African-Americans provided. Up until now, these were present in the North in small numbers, but in the South they constituted the great majority of the industrial proletariat, which, even if in the early stages, was above all concentrated in port cities and in some other industrial centers, which were slowly recovering after the destruction of the war and in spite of the northern boycott. Therefore the negro proletariat was not so much an issue for the bosses as for the white working class, which feared its competition, just as it had feared that of the Irish, and then of the Italians, and all of the waves of emigration that took place in the century that followed.
Delegates to the Baltimore convention of the NLU were divided on the attitude to take towards the African-Americans, so much so that Sylvis had to intervene: “If we can succeed in convincing these people that it is to their interest to make common cause with us (...) that will shake Wall Street out of its boots”, and to those who wanted to decline the offers of collaboration that the African-Americans were advancing, he replied: “The line of demarcation is between the robbers and the robbed, no matter whether the wronged be the friendless widow, the skilled white mechanic or the ignorant black. Capital is no respecter of persons and it is in the very nature of things a sheer impossibility to degrade one class of laborers without degrading all”.
But the 1866 convention did not debate the question, thus forcing Sylvis and others to draw up an appeal addressed to American trade unionists, published by the NLU in 1867: “Negroes are four million strong and a greater proportion of them work with their hands; the same can’t be said for any other people on earth. Can we afford to reject their proffered cooperation and make them enemies? By committing such an act of folly we would inflict greater injury on the cause of labor reform than the combined efforts of capital could furnish (...) So capitalists north and south would foment discord between the whites and blacks and hurl one against the other as interest and occasion might require to maintain their ascendancy and continue their reign of oppression”.
As we shall see, in the years that followed, despite commendable attempts by some labor unions and leaders, the discord between white proletarians on the question inhibited the growth of the entire union movements, and the consequences would be felt for decades.
After the Civil War, the African-American proletarians of the South would discover that their newly acquired liberty was not much different from their lost slavery. The plantation owners were still the bosses, and the old restrictions that limited the rights of “free” African-Americans were still in force. Things did not go better with the “carpetbaggers”, rapacious investors arriving from the North to profit from the advantageous conditions for speculation and exploitation of labor. Even if they had celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation, the African-Americans of the South demanded a material basis for their freedom, beyond civil and political rights: a demand exemplified by the slogan “40 acres and a mule”; as much as would have sufficed, in the conditions of the time, to guarantee a family’s survival. An agrarian reform, in short, which could easily be achieved with lands expropriated from the landowners, and which the radical Republicans attempted to realize during the so‑called “Reconstruction”. But after a few years the radicals lost the leadership of the party, and the African-Americans who managed to have land allotted to them were a tiny minority.
President Johnson, who was opposed to the radicals, instead promulgated the black codes, which substituted the old slave codes and resembled them to an impressive degree. These codes limited the right of blacks to rent land, acquire arms, or to move freely; they imposed prohibitive taxes on whoever among them wanted to start independent activity, especially if non‑agrarian; and they allowed the bosses to take the sons of ex‑slaves as “apprentices” if they were shown to be “unsuited” as parents. The African-Americans were not allowed to give courtroom testimony against whites; if they left work they could be put in prison for not having respected their contract; whoever was found without work could be arrested and fined $50. He who could not pay the fine was “rented out” to anyone in the county who could pay the fine. African-Americans could also be fined for making offensive gestures, failure to respect the curfew, or possession of firearms. In short, a degree of personal control over the African-Americans established itself, which was indistinguishable from slavery.
A section of the bourgeoisie was defending the African-Americans, at least in these years: the abolitionist movement and, as mentioned, the radical Republicans, who represented the industrial bourgeoisie and who, as we have explained better elsewhere, opposed Johnson’s policies. However, these radicals, before losing the power they held in parliament, only succeeded in getting the right to vote for African-Americans, while the agrarian reform did not happen because also in the North, it was taken as an attack on private property, hard to accept even for Republican landowners.
The workers’ movement did not have an unequivocal position: even if its own press often praised the radicals’ initiatives, the sympathy of large sections of the workers was with the Democrats, who were traditionally closer to the class’s needs. But the African-Americans were not disposed to giving their vote to the enemies of the radical Republicans, who at the time were the only ones to defend them. It was the Democrats who took advantage of this situation, in finally bringing the Reconstruction to a close in 1878.
In the workplace the attitude of workers towards the African-Americans was even worse, more or less the same one that occurs every time that large numbers of workers pour into production from other parts of the country or from abroad. Discrimination got to the point that some labor unions ordered their members to refuse to work alongside African-Americans. The question was presented at the 1867 convention, and again in the following year. Despite the attempts to avoid it, the fact that in the meantime negro workers had taken part in fierce trade union battles, and that they had formed organizations even at State level, meant that the 1869 Convention of the NLU adopted a resolution for the organization of Negro workers. But the resolution had little effect in the factories, and discrimination continued. Not seeing their interests being defended by the NLU in reality, African-American workers set up the National Colored Labor Union, whose political perspective was to support the Republican Party, of which it soon became a mere appendage among blacks.
After a few years the army that had been in control of the South would be withdrawn and sent against strikers in the North struggling against the reduction of wages; the African-Americans were thus left dependent on their ex bosses: the process reached its conclusion in 1877, during the presidential contest between Hayes and Tilden, when, in exchange for a clear path to the presidency, Republicans gave southern Democrats full freedom to treat blacks as they saw fit.
An intense relationship between the European proletariat and that of America had existed since the time of the Civil War when, especially in England, the organized working class mobilized in favor of the anti‑slavery North. On the American side of the ocean the most active had been German immigrants, who had stayed in contact with the mother country.
Sylvis was among the leaders who understood the importance of ties to the International. There were also contacts between similar unions on both sides of the Atlantic. Sylvis asked the labor unions to inform workers yearning to leave their mother country that America was not what was being promised by recruiters; besides, they had to understand that immigrants were almost always used to break strikes.
The motion to affiliate to the International was repeatedly carried at conventions of the NLU, but the decision was always put back. Even after Cameron, the NLU’s emissary to Europe, had made his report to the 1870 convention, it was decided that the International’s program was too advanced (but perhaps that meant too revolutionary) for the USA. While in Europe such a program was inevitable because of the prevalent despotism, America’s problems, it was argued, were not about the type of government but rather, poor administration; “the correct administration of the fundamental principles on which the government is based” should have sufficed. And here the typically American conviction emerges: that of being in a special country, a kind of Promised Land, part of a chosen people; a conviction that even today has permeated through all levels of society, and which is the worst ideological poison.
Even Sylvis, who had died two years earlier, had acknowledged a difference in conditions between the workers of the two continents. But he also knew that “the war of poverty against wealth” was the same everywhere in the world, and that the proposals of the International for cooperation with the NLU were based on questions that concerned American workers as much as Europeans. Nevertheless, and despite repeated declarations of intent, affiliation to the International was never to be approved.
But there was not only the NLU. Sections of the International were established in a number of cities: the first affiliation, in 1867, was that of the Communist Club of New York, founded in 1857 by Sorge and others. The sections invited workers’ organizations, i.e. the labor unions, to affiliate in their turn, but the invitation did not achieve much success. Most of the following was among bourgeois reformers, a fact that only created problems within the sections: Sorge himself had to work for the expulsion of sections that were only interested in female suffrage, free love, the achievement of socialism with a referendum, and similar nonsense. On the other hand in these years the American sections of the International were highly active in backing the struggle of the Irish against English occupation and in support of the Paris Commune and, after its defeat, persecuted Communards. These struggles also saw a lot of African-American workers taking part in demonstrations. In 1873 sections of the International were, moreover, active in struggles by the unemployed.
Thus, even if only on the margins, the International made its presence felt within the working class in these years which heralded a new crisis and the long depression that followed. What did not happen, and would always be the problem within the American working class, was the welding together of revolutionary political consciousness and the power of workers more or less organized into union structures. Petty-bourgeois opportunism could also play its part in preventing such a convergence by keeping African-Americans, women and unskilled workers at arm’s length from the organized ranks of factory workers.
The long depression
Thanks to labor union activity real wages and employment had increased in the period 1865‑73, despite the depression that followed the Civil War. The collapse of the Jay Cooke bank in September 1873 rang the death‑knell not just for the bourgeoisie, which saw the destruction of its loans system (the stock market slumped, the stock exchange shut up shop and by the end of the year there were at least 5,183 bankruptcies), but also and above all for the proletariat, which would have to pay a higher price even though, of course, it was not in the least responsible for the complete anarchy within the economic system.
The most immediate consequence was unemployment: already by the end of 1873 25% of the labor force was unemployed. The situation would remain wretched until 1878, when 20% were still permanently unemployed, 40% worked less than 6‑7 months per year, and only 20% were in regular employment, but with salaries cut by up to 45%, this often meant little more than a dollar a day.
Few labor unions managed to resist the impact of the tempest that had been unleashed: of the 30 national labor union only 8 or 9 survived through to 1877, and these with extremely reduced numbers. The bosses, from a position of strength, made use of all the old ways to wear down working class militancy. Lockouts, blacklists, “yellow dog” contracts, everything was acceptable in order to break the organizations and the spirit of the proletariat and impose their conditions, in general a return to the more ruthless past. The trade unionist was hunted down, and once caught, destined to the most extreme poverty.
There were exceptions, labor unions that resisted, or even grew stronger, thanks to a better position in the production process, such as the iron and steel foundry workers who united in the Amalgamated Iron and Steel Workers Union. Another category that flourished was the miners. But these remained exceptions against a landscape of social desolation. Until 1878, when the Knights of Labor took on a national significance, there was no national organization capable of coordinating the few cases of worker militancy, which were however not entirely lacking.
Also those who were in work, therefore, did not do well: in the textile industry, wages fell by 45%, likewise for the rail workers and all categories, even if official data is sparse. Also, because there was often no agreed wage, everyone sold their labor singly to the boss who stated the wage he considered appropriate on a “take it or leave it” basis, that is at the lowest supportable level. It is true that there was also some reduction in the price of essentials, and real wages fell less than the percentages mentioned above, but the tragedy also extended to the enormous numbers of unemployed, in the best cases dependent on those who had the good fortune to be in work. Whereas the others struggled in the darkest misery. In New York, for example, in the first three months of 1874, more than 90,000 workers were registered homeless (a phenomenon that has far from disappeared on today’s opulent American streets); they were known as revolvers, because they came in and went out of special buildings just to sleep, where they were packed in like animals and were only admitted for one or two days per month. Yet even this miserable charity was judged by the bourgeoisie to be “too generous”, because it could “weaken independence of character and reduce confidence in self‑help”; the whole thing, concluded one newspaper, “is completely communist”. Evidently the specter that was haunting Europe had also taken to sending shivers down the spines of the Yankee bourgeoisie.
Of course, there was the option of going west. But how? To do what? Modest as the prospects were, one needed a small amount of capital for the journey, for the animals and the tools, assuming that free land was available in the first place, after the rail companies had grabbed vast territories, and the first allotments of land had been made in previous years based on the Homestead Act. Besides, the factory worker knew nothing about agriculture. Heading west in search of work proved to be useless, because the opportunities were far fewer than the labor supply, even in the less distant cities of the Midwest, such as Chicago, St. Louis or Cincinnati. The rest was entirely agrarian. Many, by contrast, decided on another direction, back to old Europe or to South America. In 1878 a ship heading for South America sank with its cargo of emigrants from the United States; an hour after the news had reached Philadelphia there was already a crowd of unemployed wanting to take the place of the workers who had just drowned.
Even in this dire situation, a proposal for loans to help unemployed families to occupy and cultivate public lands was shelved in Congress for being too communist. One newspaper wrote: “Our workers must resign themselves to being no better off than their European equivalents. They must be content to work for low wages... In this way they will advance to the condition in life that the Lord is pleased to assign them”.
Socialists and the struggles of the unemployed
Sections of the International were at the heart of the struggles of the unemployed that were unleashed in the first year of the crisis. Already in October 1873 the IWA Federal Council of North America distributed a manifesto proposing to proletarians the objectives for which they should struggle, after being organized and setting up delegates on a territorial basis: “1) Work should be given to all who are capable and desirous of working, at normal wages and based on the eight‑hour day; 2) money or goods should be paid to proletarians and their families in real difficulty, sufficient to sustain them for a week; 3) no‑one should be allowed to be evicted from their homes as a result of non‑payment of rent, from the 1st December to 1st May 1874”.
Meetings and conferences multiplied, always attended by large numbers of proletarians, with slogans that the New York Times did not hesitate to describe as “decidedly communist”. The trade unions also placed themselves at the leadership of the movement, and demonstrations were numerous, followed by petitions in the various cities of the Union. In some cases there were successes, like in Chicago, where it was possible to get a committee responsible for helping the victims of the great fire of 1871 to pay out money that had been saved for the benefit of the unemployed; it goes without saying this committee was not enthusiastic about the solution, and only the menacing pressure of thousands of demonstrators below the windows convinced the managers. However, at the start of 1874 the movement began to be ignored by the politicians, and after a few mass beatings on the part of the police its initial vigor was dissipated; in the autumn of the same year it was practically over.
If the sections of the International had been united, perhaps the disintegration of the movement could have been avoided. But the socialist movement was far from being a homogenous body. The German workers, who continued to arrive in America as a result of the repression that followed the end of the Franco-Prussian war, brought with them the divisions that existed in Germany between Marxists and Lassalleans, and the crisis only sharpened the conflict between these two spirits of the movement in America.
The fundamental question concerned the path to be followed for organizing the working class. For the Lassalleans, the disintegration of the labor unions was further proof that the only direction was to organize proletarians on the political level; demonstrations by the unemployed served no purpose for them unless it was an instrument for accelerating the birth of a labor party.
Of course, the Marxists did not reject political activity; but, apart from obviously considering all forms of class struggle to be political, they maintained that the times were not yet mature enough for the formation of a party. The trade unions, they countered, are the crucible of the workers’ movement, and it was the task of sections of the International to help them to recover and re‑establish themselves. In this sense the struggles against unemployment had to be supported because, apart from the direct benefits that they could be derived from them for proletarians in difficulty, they helped in the acquisition of a first class consciousness, and demonstrated the importance of the class’s organization.
The marxists’ activity had some immediate successes, which favored a reconciliation, in the sense that the Lassalleans started to rethink their attitude towards the unions. But these successes were little exploited, also because of the immaturity of the local communists: the Germans tended to see the movement as if it were like that in Germany, without grasping the differences, which were not few. “The Germans”, Engels wrote to Sorge on November 29, 1886, “have not understood how to use their theory as a lever which could set the American masses in motion; they do not understand the theory themselves for the most part and treat it in a doctrinaire and dogmatic way, as something which has got to be learnt off by heart but which will then supply all needs without more ado. To them it is a credo and not a guide to action. Added to which they learn no English on principle. Hence the American masses had to seek out their own way”.
However, the reconciliation did take place, and it was formally agreed in July 1876, when the delegates of 19 American sections of the International met in Philadelphia and dissolved the International Workers’ Association. We have analyzed the events of the International in general elsewhere, which, having transferred its central headquarters to America in 1874, did not appear anymore suited in this form to the tasks it had given itself, while in Europe strong nationally based socialist parties were developing rapidly. It is worth reading the final declaration of the conference.
the members of the International Workers’ Association.
Fellow working men,
“The International Convention at Philadelphia has abolished the General Council of the International Workingmen’s Association, and the external bond of the organization exists no more.
“‘The International is dead!’ the bourgeoisie of all countries will again exclaim, and with ridicule and joy it will point to the proceedings of this convention as documentary proof of the defeat of the labor movement of the world. Let us not be influenced by the cry of our enemies! We have abandoned the organization of the International for reasons arising from the present political situation of Europe, but as a compensation for it we see the principles of the organization recognized and defended by the progressive working men of the entire civilized world.
“Let us give our fellow-workers in Europe a little time to strengthen their national affairs, and they will surely soon be in a position to remove the barriers between themselves and the working men of other parts of the world.
“Comrades, you have embraced the principle of the International with heart and love; you will find means to extend the circle of its adherents even without an organization. You will win new champions who will work for the realization of the aims of our association.
“The comrades in America promise you that they will faithfully guard and cherish the acquisitions of the International in this country until more favorable conditions will again bring together the working men of all countries to common struggle, and the cry will resound again louder than ever: Proletarians of all countries, unite!”
A few days later, in the same city, the socialist organizations met to found a new party, called the Working Men’s Party of the United States, the word “socialist” evidently still being too bold. In its platform it adopted the attitude of the International towards unions, conceding to the Lassalleans that the organization would remain national. Nevertheless the peace was short-lived and the polemics soon resumed along the same lines.
The Molly Maguires
An idea of the workers’ conditions and of the heterogeneity of the situations facing the humans put to produce in the new world according to the rules of the capitalist mode of production, due to the variety of climates and origins, can be drawn from the brief story of the Molly Maguires, a phenomenon that was more picturesque than significant, but which remains an episode of fully fledged class struggle, even in its simple spontaneity.
According to legend the movement took its inspiration from a woman of this name, who was a leader of the Free Soil Party, a clandestine party in Ireland that threatened landowners who were guilty of over-exploiting, if not expelling the poor peasants from the land: the penalty was always the same, death.
The movement emigrated to the United States with so many Irish who moved in the 1850s: only the Irish could take part, and it took the name of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The declared aim was that of a fraternity of mutual aid, but it soon became clear that the methods used in Ireland were also applied in the USA, and in particular in the coal-producing areas of Pennsylvania, where the majority of Irishmen were concentrated.
For sure, the working conditions in the mines were such as to breed resentment towards the bosses and their henchmen. Pay was low: the supervisors were always looking to swindle the miners, who did piece‑work, based on weight; there were no safety measures and miners died in their hundreds every year, not to speak of the abuses suffered by all workers in common.
The Molly Maguires were also active as union leaders, and it seemed that apart from the bosses they also had as targets the union leaders, who were considered cowardly. One of the unions involved in the “long strike” of 1875 was led by them.
There remains little clear evidence on the activity of the Molly Maguires, other than the view from the bourgeois press. And few rose up to defend them when many workers, accused of being leaders of the movement, were arrested and tried for the homicides that occurred in the 1860s and 70s. And to tell the truth many historians deny that an organization of this name ever existed in the United States. The whole investigation is based on the testimony of a bosses’ spy from the Pinkerton Agency, and from carefully instructed witnesses. Nonetheless, during the trial the inconsistency of the evidence presented was abundantly obvious, though this did not save the accused miners from the gallows. In the book of one historian, published a century later, we read: “The investigation and the trials of the Molly Maguires constituted one of the most open renunciations of legality in American history. A private company initiated the investigations by means of a private investigations agency; a private police force arrested the presumed culprits; the mining company’s lawyers incriminated them. The State restricted itself to providing the courtroom and the hangman”. A newspaper of the time summarized the profile of the accused well, and implicitly revealed the reason for their persecution: “What have they done? When the price set on their work was not going well for them they organized and declared a strike”.
Thus it was a campaign orchestrated to terrorize the miners’ union movement. Perhaps the best epitaph is in the tribute paid thirty years later by Eugene Debs: “They all protested their innocence, and they all died game. Not one of them betrayed the slightest evidence of fear or weakening. Not one of them was a murderer at heart. All were ignorant, rough and uncouth, born of poverty and buffeted by the merciless tides of fate and chance. (...) To resist the wrongs of which they and their fellow-workers were the victims and to protect themselves against the brutality of their bosses, according to their own crude notions, was the prime object of the organization of the ‘Mollie Maguires’. It is true that their methods were drastic, but it must be remembered that their lot was hard and brutalizing; that they were the neglected children of poverty, the products of a wretched environment (...) The men who perished upon the scaffold as felons were labor leaders, the first martyrs to the class struggle in the United States”.
Just a few weeks after the last hanging, in June 1877, the great railroad strike would break out.
The American working class did not did not take the attack on employment and wages brought about by the depression lying down. It was the most prolonged depression yet seen. The struggles were decisive, above all in the textiles, mining and transport sectors. These struck terror in the boss class, which knew very well the living conditions of the working class, and had fresh in its memory from just a few years ago what the Parisian proletariat had been capable of doing. The specter of communism, even before it entered the minds of the workers, stirred the worst nightmares of the bourgeoisie.
The first struggles of a significant size were those that occurred at Fall River Massachusetts, following an attempt by the bosses to reduce wages by 10%. More than three thousand workers took part in the strike, which at first had a positive outcome; however in autumn the bosses went on the offensive against an exhausted working class, which after eight weeks of strike had to surrender unconditionally.
In the same year of 1875 there was a long strike among the miners of Pennsylvania, (“The long strike”), and this also was defeated by a combination of hunger, State intervention, and judicial ruthlessness. But the division of the workers in two unions, who held different positions, also influenced the defeat, as did the determination of the bosses, who prepared the attack for three years, which then succeeded. The union leaders were described as “foreign agitators, members of the Commune and emissaries of the International”; and the union as a “despotic organization, before which the poor worker must bend his knee like a dog on the leash, surrendering his own will”.
But the most significant event of these years, which left a permanent dread in the memory of the bourgeoisie, was a series of strikes that manifested themselves in the course of 1877, in the final period of the economic crisis, which, due to its broad scope and duration has received various names. “The Great Strike of 1877”, “The Great Railroad Strike”, “The Great Upheaval”.
It all started on July 16 at Martinsburg, West Virginia, when it was learned that the local railroad company had lowered wages by 10 percent, the second reduction in eight months. The workers had no more leeway: many were unemployed, huge numbers only worked a few hours, the payment of wages was sometimes delayed by months, hunger was their families’ constant companion. The bosses wanted, among other things, to destroy the workers’ unions which, apart from being few in number and small, were extremely submissive and anything but combative; the union leaders were on blacklists, negotiations with the Unions were not accepted, and the Pinkerton spies were so active that the workers even avoided speaking among themselves.
The great upheaval was in reality preceded by a period of apparent inertia among the workers. The managing director of one of the railroad companies wrote on June 21, “The experiment of cutting back wages has proved successful for all the companies that have done it recently, and I have no reason to fear that there can be agitations or resistance on the part of the dependents if this is carried out with the necessary firmness on our side and if they realize that they must accept willingly or leave”. Even on the day of the Martinsburg strike itself the Governor of Pennsylvania affirmed that the State had not known the calm of this period for years. Within a few days the State would be at the center of the revolt.
On July 16, 40 railroad workers went on strike and blocked a goods train. The police did not succeed in getting them to back down. The next day a detachment of the militia arrived. In the attempt to allow the train to depart the first clash took place, and a worker was killed by a soldier. At this point the soldiers desisted, also because they did not find anyone willing to maneuver the train, and withdrew.
Now the strike spread along the entire line, the Baltimore & Ohio, all the way to Baltimore in Maryland. The Governor, being disappointed by the National Guard which, largely composed of railroad workers, fraternized with the strikers, turned to President Hayes asking for Federal troops to be dispatched: the President satisfied this request. It was the first time that Federal troops had been used to repress a strike in peacetime on the metropolitan territory of the United States. General French, in command of the troops, arrested the strike leaders and informed Washington that everything was now tranquil. But the General was mistaken. The strike had already extended to the rest of West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky, to the bargemen, miners and other categories, all united by the inhuman living conditions and the bosses’ attack. At Baltimore the workers sought to impede the departure of the soldiers, who opened fire, killing 12 and injuring many others.
Repression was detailed: whoever attempted to win over a scab was immediately arrested; any group of workers who attempted to stop a train became a target for the fire of the soldiers. On the 22nd, after arrests and killings, with the army joining in the action along with private troops, militia, police, press and courts, the strike on the Baltimore & Ohio was broken.
But meanwhile the strike extended: the railroad workers of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and California were brought to a halt by the strike.
At Pittsburgh the struggle was especially hard: the workers refused a ridiculous agreement by a yellow union, and organized themselves in a secret union, the Trainmen’s Union, one that finally embraced all categories of railroad workers, and not just the drivers, often jealous of their own interests. The tactics were similar in this struggle to those adopted at Martinsburg. The Governor decided to send the Philadelphia militia, counting on a certain local rivalry. The maneuver worked, with the soldiers firing on the people that did not back off, causing 20 dead and 29 injured. In the face of this massacre, rather than being discouraged, the crowd grew with the influx of workers of all trades, also from the surroundings, and also the local militia; the anger was uncontainable, buildings and rolling stock were set alight; the troops had to withdraw. There were also 11 deaths in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Hayes asked the troops to protect Washington. The press sounded the alarm: “Pittsburgh ransacked (...) in the hands of men controlled by the diabolical spirit of communism” wrote the New York World. Newspapers, clergy, public functionaries: they all denounced the strike as a new Paris Commune: “an insurrection, a revolution, an attempt by communists and vagabonds to subjugate society, to put American institutions in danger”. The newspapers openly called for the spilling of blood. The strikers, declared the New York Tribune, only understand the logic of force; therefore it is useless to show mercy towards “the ignorant rabble with greedy mouths”. For the New York Herald the crowd “is a savage beast, to be cut down”. The New York Sun recommended a diet of lead for the starving strikers, while The Nation called for the use of snipers. And from this period the infamous utterance from billionaire Jay Gould: “I would give a million dollars to see General Grant as dictator or emperor”.
Despite this, after Pittsburgh the militia, wherever it was utilized, fraternized with the strikers and proved useless, if not counter-productive.
In Chicago a street battle between police and strikers on the 26th ended with 12 workers slashed to death; the workers subsequently prevailed for a few days, then to give up in face of the reunited forces of reaction.
The recently reconstituted Working Men’s Party had had scarce contacts with the railroad workers before the strike. But from the first days it was highly active in the attempt to extend the struggle both geographically and across categories. Apart from supporting the struggles it also attempted to provide them with subjects of general interest, such as the eight‑hour day and the abolition of anti‑union laws. In Chicago it played a leading role. In St. Louis the party managed to organize the strikers directly: on the 29th, even though some of the bosses had conceded the requested wage rises, the strike was total, and the workers were in charge of the city.
But reaction did not hold back, and the combined forces of the bourgeoisie, which raised $20,000 to arm a force of one thousand mercenaries, of the militia, the mounted police, Federal troops and other volunteers had the upper hand over the proletarians: their quarters were devastated, tens of their leaders arrested and condemned to huge fines and custodial sentences. On August 2 the strike ended.
As was to be expected, given the level of organization of the American proletariat, the Great Strike ended in defeat. Not entirely however, because in many cases the bosses indeed conceded wage increases, or withdrew the threatened wage cuts. But for sure, the average American worker had learned at least two fundamental lessons: in the first place they understood the great power that the class was able to exert when it moved in unison; and moreover that this great power could come to nothing without an organization that gave it continuity, networks and the ability to resist. This provided the decisive impetus towards the formation of national labor unions, capable of moving great masses and of supporting strikers for prolonged periods, thanks to the number of contributing members.
The political consequences, however, were less profound, because of the low level of penetration of the Working Men’s Party in the class. Experience which Marx instead hoped would consolidate, as he wrote in a letter to Engels dated July 25, 1877: “What do you think of the workers in the United States? This first eruption against the oligarchy of associated capital which has arisen since the Civil War will of course be put down, but it could quite well form the starting point for the establishment of a serious labor party in the United States. There are moreover two favorable circumstances. The policy of the new President will turn the Negroes into allies of the workers, and the large expropriations of land (especially fertile land) in favor of railway, mining, etc., companies will convert the farmers of the West, who are already very disenchanted, into allies of the workers. Thus a fine mess is in the offing over there, and transferring the centre of the International to the United States might, post festum, turn out to have been a peculiarly opportune move”. Engels replied by direct return of post: “It was a pleasure, this business of the strike in America. The way in which they threw themselves into the movement is unequalled on this side of the ocean. Just 12 years have passed since the abolition of slavery, and the movement already reaches such levels”.
Unfortunately, from a political point of view, the hopes of our masters would not come true.
The bosses had also drawn their lessons: the workers can be very dangerous when their conditions become insupportable. But, far from becoming compassionate, the bosses learned the need for a permanent army deployed in the country, to have a militia available under the control of the most eminent capitalists, private police, also for the purposes of espionage, of the so‑called armories in which they could entrench themselves in difficult moments, a type of stronghold which, in the years that followed, were built in the center of all American cities, and which still today are visible with their thick walls and shooting embrasures and, who knows, perhaps they are still usable.
Signs of independent political action
The long crisis created within the proletariat the widespread belief that the trade unions were incapable of responding fully to their problems and resolving them. On the other hand the rapid disintegration of the political parties formed under the leadership of the National Labor Union had the same effect with regard to the independent political work. For some years, therefore, the working class wavered between the disinterest and lukewarm support for movements that had very little in common with its own class objectives.
One of the political movements that sought to attract workers’ sympathies for electoral purposes was “greenbackism” which saw the solution to all ills in the precipitous issuance of paper currency and other economic measures; a movement that was above all based on farmers and the urban petty bourgeoisie. The Working Men’s Party exhorted workers in 1876 not to be seduced by this “novelty” and its own sections not to get involved in the campaigns of the Greenback Party. It repeated a resolution adopted at the congress of the American sections of the International that took place in Philadelphia in April 1874. Another important resolution on political action rejected “any cooperation or connection with the political parties formed by the propertied classes, these being called Republicans, Democrats, Independents, Liberals, Farmers’ Associations (Grangers), Reformers or whatever other name they have decided to adopt”. The socialists reproached the Greenbacks’ movement for not taking any interest in the workers in its program, while they showed complete disinterest for the southern negroes, even though they were a component of the proletariat which, particularly in these years, was coming back under the yoke of landowners thanks to the deplorable compromise between Republicans and Democrats.
Following an electoral reversal in this very year, the Greenback Party raised its demands favorable to the workers, merged with the newly formed United Labor Party to create the Greenback-Labor Party and, even if the Working Men’s Party continued to keep its distance, it obtained more than one million votes in the elections of 1878. An ephemeral victory which, even if followed by some appointments at local level, did not succeed in avoiding the break‑up of the movement that occurred in 1882.
In 1876 we left the Working Men’s Party reunited, but already in the grip of polemics between Lassalleans and Marxists. The former maintained that, if the workers did not have even the few cents needed to join the Party, how could they pay for the much more expensive union card? And wouldn’t this have been in competition with the Party? And if the unions could resolve the workers’ problems, what purpose did the Party serve?
The Marxists replied in their newspapers that, even if the unions were not large enough to include all the workers, it was however the task of the socialists to favor their strengthening. As regards the usefulness of the Party, they argued that “The Party is useful for all. It can do the work that the unions are currently unable to do. It can agitate and study questions of economics. It can combat past errors. It can make understand the need for unity and action. It can prove itself as the party of intelligence and wisdom, help all labor unions, work for the advancement of the class, which can only be achieved in class organizations. It can invite the masses to join their unions and drive them towards centralized action. If we want to favor the arrival of a better future we have to work for a better present. Let’s try not to be stupidly egotistical just because our party is not the entire workers’ movement. It is only the vanguard”. (Labor Standard, January 6 1877.)
But the defeat of the strikes of 1877, rather than demonstrating how great was the potential (which had not yet fully manifested itself) of the working class, induced the Lassalleans to reinforce their belief that the only weapon that could succeed was that of the ballot box. Why do you want to struggle with the strike when militia, troops, courts and the rest of the enemy array come to frustrate the result? Only by conquering central political power, obviously by means of the ballot box, is it possible to aspire to a socialist society. Strengthened by this conviction the Lassalleans convinced many sections to throw themselves into the arena of electoral politics; and in fact in the local elections of 1877 there were encouraging results in many important cities. In the Newark convention of the Working Men’s Party (on December 26) the Lassalleans took control of the movement, changing its name to the Socialist Labor Party and rewrote its program. The principal aim of the party was henceforth the mobilization of the class for political action. The new motto was: “Science the Arsenal, Reason the Weapon, Ballot the Bullet”.
There were also electoral successes in 1878, which however proved ephemeral in the following year. Elsewhere successes were principally driven by the party’s Marxist wing, which had mobilized the unions over which it exercised an influence; where the Lassalleans were in a clear majority the electoral results were always disappointing. In 1880 a split in the party became inevitable, and the occasion was the attitude towards the presidential elections. The majority decided to join the Greenbackers while the Marxist wing decided to support independent socialist candidates. Other groups took various decisions, from conservative unionism to terrorism.
The workers’ movement was moreover “revived”, in its anarchistic component, little developed up until this moment, through the arrival of numerous socialists expelled from Germany by the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878. Thus numerous social revolutionary clubs were founded, which would be federated n 1881 in a Revolutionary Socialistic Party, which took classic anarchist positions, despite the name.
The International Labor Union
Despite the long depression of the 1870s, and the drastic drop in the number of members that followed, the union movement did not disappear; the recovery that occurred in 1878, and which exploded a year later, unlike the analogous situations that followed the previous crises, found an embryonic proletarian organization ready to start up again for the defense of wage earners’ conditions. And there was ample need for this: the crisis had swept away the majority of gains of the period that followed the Civil War, with working hours that often exceeded 10 hours a day, up to 12‑13 hours in many productive sectors, above all in those where unions were absent and among non‑specialized workers. Wages had been reduced to the point that still in 1883, after various years of recovery and victorious struggles, they were lower than in 1870.
There were 18 national unions in 1880, and half of them came into being before the crisis. In the following years these unions saw a rapid increase, even if at first the absolute numbers remained low, below 50,000 members in 1883, while it is not possible to calculate how many members there were in all the unions, including the local ones; but certainly very few in 1877‑78.
The need for unions and coordination, understood thanks to recent experiences, was partially satisfied in these years by the rise of Central Councils and Trade Assemblies, precursors of structures like Italian Camere del Lavoro and the French Bourses du Travail, even if much more informal; socialists of the Socialist Labor Party, which led the workers also on the political level, played a primary role in these, taking part in struggles to block reactionary legislation that was being tightened to annul regulatory and political conquests from the preceding years, such as the abrogation of the law on conspiracy.
Obviously these initiatives could not be considered eternal, and the need for more organized and permanent structures was strongly apparent. Moreover the Trade Assemblies were limited in their activity almost exclusively to specialized workers. The effort to overcome this limitation was assumed, in this period, by two organizations, the International Labor Union and the Knights of Labor.
Despite its short life, the International Labor Union is important as the first major attempt to organize all non‑specialized workers in a single union, then to merge them with the specialized unions in a national solidarity movement unconfined by nationality, gender, skin color, religious belief and politics. Its birth dates back to the start of 1878, and resulted from the agreement of the leaders of the International, disgusted with the “political” cravings of the Lassalleans, and the leaders of the eight‑hour movement, with the slogan, “Fewer hours and more wages”. The avowed objective was the constitution of a mass workers’ organization aiming to abolish the wage system.
The ILU’s goals are recorded in its “Declaration of Principles”: “The wage system is a despotism under which the wage‑worker is forced to sell his labor at such price and under such conditions as the employer of labor shall dictate (...) That as wealth of the world is distributed through the wage system, its better distribution must come through higher wages and better opportunities, until wages shall represent the earnings and not the necessities of labor; thus melting profit out of existence, and making cooperation, or self‑employed labor, the natural and logical step from wages slavery to free labor (...) That the first step towards the emancipation of labor is a reduction of the hours of labor, that the added leisure produced by a reduction of the hours of labor will operate upon the natural causes that affect the habits and customs of the people, enlarging wants, stimulating ambition, decreasing idleness and increasing wages…”.
It is inconceivable that Marxists, led by Sorge, really held that the reduction in working hours and the increase of wages were the condition for a transition, and moreover a painless one, to socialism. In the writings that have reached us Sorge does not make any pronouncement on the issue, but even if the two conditions mentioned above are certainly progressive in the struggle for socialism, the aim for which the socialist followers of Ira Steward united was certainly the creation of a mass organism, capable of raising and defending the entire working class, in which the socialists could expound their action of propaganda and agitation. Beyond this it is necessary to remember that at the time other far more inauspicious political movements, such as the Greenbackers and Monetary Reform had a certain following in many proletarian strata.
The International Labor Union also understood the need to open up to the southern negroes. But its strength principally came from non‑specialized workers in the textile sector, above all women. And it was among the textile female workers of New England that the Union achieved most of its successes in the years 1878‑80.
In the following years, however, successes were lacking, and the organization lost strength, finally ceasing to exist in 1883. But the experience that it had gained did not get lost and would be precious within the Knights of Labor.
In Communist Left No. 38/9 we republished the Theses on the National and Colonial Question which were presented at the Fifth Session of the 2nd Congress of the Communist International on July 26, 1920. And in Communist Left No. 42/3 we published the first instalment of a party report on the National and Colonial Question at the First Congress of the Peoples of the Orient, whose second and third and final part appears in this edition. In this edition there also appears the 3rd Part in our series on The Working Class and Irish Nationalism.
In the light of these articles, which cover the Theses on the National and Colonial question, the Baku Congress, and the working class struggle and nationalism in Ireland; and given the presence of a representative of the British Socialist Party at the both the Second Congress of the C.I, and the First Congress of the Peoples of the Orient, we thought it pertinent to republish some comments and observations made by the Commission on the National and Colonial Question at the Fourth Session (on the day before the Theses were finally presented to the 2nd Congress of the C.I). These touch on the important matter of how British Communists should apply the theses in Britain, the heartland of British imperialism, then engaged in a war to prevent Ireland staking its claim to national independence.
The comments consist of Lenin and Radek’s response to remarks made by Tom Quelch of the British Socialist Party, who at the time was on the Executive Committee of the C.I.
Lenin stated he would like to remark:
“On the role of the revolutionary work of the Communist Parties not only in their own countries but also in the colonial countries, and particularly among the troops used by the exploiting nations to hold down their colonial peoples.
“Comrade Quelch of the BSP spoke about this in our Commission. He said that the ordinary British worker would regard it as treachery if he was to help the dependent peoples to rebel against English domination. It is correct that the jingoist and chauvinist mood of the labour aristocracy in England forms the greatest danger for communism and the greatest support for the Second International, and this is the greatest treachery on the part of the leaders and workers who belong to such a bourgeois international”.
After further speeches by Maring; by Roy, presenting the Supplementary Theses on the National and Colonial Question, and speeches by Fraina and Reed on the situation in North and South America, Radek took up some of the points raised (From Radek’s speech we have omitted only a short paragraph on the use of Parliament, believing that his admonishing of the Shop Stewards for ‘behaving childishly’ by not participating in Parliament was misguided and far from convincing. Radek seemed to be saying that if the Shop Stewards didn’t register their protest against the oppression of peasants in India in Parliament, how else would they know in India that British socialists were fighting for them?).
The excerpts from Radek’s Speech
At every Congress of the Second International numerous protests were raised against the brutality of imperialist government in colonial countries. Even now the colonial question is discussed endlessly at Conferences of the Second International, and we see how Huysmans, Henderson and Company dish out independence left and right to different nations, even when they do not even demand it. If it was simply a question of trumpeting protests about imperialist policies out into the world and ‘recognising’ the independence of colonial peoples, our task would be a very simple one. But in the area of the practical struggle in the colonial countries we are setting foot in completely new territory. Here it is not simply a question of sketching the foundations of communist policies, of sucking them out of our fingers, but of developing them out of a study of concrete colonial conditions. It is a question of taking practical steps to support the struggle in the colonies. Comrade Lenin quotes a statement by Comrade Quelch who declared in the colonial commission that if an uprising were to break out in India the jingoist press would succeed in influencing a section of the British workers into sacrificing themselves to suppress the uprising. If all that Quelch is pointing out is that there is among British workers a strong imperialist current, then that is a matter of fact. But if this fact is supposed to lead our English comrades to a passive posture towards a colonial revolt, and to saying that, because of this mood, they can do no more than pass protest resolutions, then one could say that the Communist International will first of all have to teach its members the ABC of politics. If British workers, instead of opposing bourgeois prejudices, support British imperialism or tolerate it passively, then they are working for the suppression of every revolutionary movement in Britain itself.
It is impossible for the British proletariat to liberate itself from the yoke that capitalism has laid upon it without stepping into the breach for the colonial revolutionary movement. When the time comes for the British workers to rise against their own capitalist class, they will face a situation in which Britain can, at the best, cover 30 per cent of her food needs out of her own production. They will face a situation in which American capitalism will try to blockade proletarian Britain. For even if the American capitalists’ ships will not be able to cut off the food supplies of proletarian Europe for any length of time, since the Americans must sell, it is none the less very possible that the British capitalists will be in a position for a year or two to buy up American wheat in order to stop it going to Britain. In this situation the fate of the British revolution will depend on whether the peasants and workers of Ireland, India, Egypt, etc. are accustomed to seeing the servants of the British imperialists in the British working class. The Labour Conference at Scarborough passed an important resolution in which it demanded the independence of India and Egypt. Not a single Communist stood up to tell the Conference that the MacDonalds support the British bourgeoisie fooling British workers when they talk about the independence of India, Ireland and Egypt. It is simple hypocrisy and swindling that these same people, who could not even rise to the level of characterising General Dwyer as a common murderer in Parliament on the occasion of the Amritsar bloodbath, pretend to be the defenders of colonial independence. We greatly regret that our party comrades who are in the Labour Party did not tear the mask off these swindlers’ faces. The International will not judge the British comrades by the articles that they write in the Call and the Workers Dreadnought, [The Call was the paper of the British Socialist Party. The Workers’ Dreadnought was the paper of Sylvia Pankhurst’s ultra‑left group, the Workers’ Socialist Federation.] but by the number of comrades who are thrown into gaol for agitating in the colonial countries. We would point out to the British comrades that it is their duty to help the Irish movement with all their strength, that it is their duty to agitate among the British troops, that it is their duty to use all their resources to block the policy that the British transport and railway unions are at present pursuing of permitting troop transports to be shipped to Ireland. It is very easy at the moment to speak out in Britain against intervention in Russia, since even the bourgeois left is against it. It is harder for the British comrades to take up the cause of Irish independence and of anti-militarist activity. We have a right to demand this difficult work of the British comrades.
(…) British capital, based on a strong bourgeoisie, cannot be overthrown only in London, Sheffield, Glasgow and Manchester, it must also be beaten in the colonies. They are its Achilles heel, and it is the duty of the British Communists to go to the colonies and to fight at the head of the rising masses of the people and to support them. We scarcely know of a single case in the old International where a Social Democratic Party made itself the champion of the liberation of the colonial peoples. When the Hereros were being driven in their thousands into the desert, the German Socialists abstained from voting because they declared that they did not know the causes of the revolt and had no opinion on the matter. It is the duty of the Communist International to create an atmosphere in which it is not possible to take part in the Congress here without proving that one has helped the revolt in the colonies practically. This is one of the biggest and most important life‑or‑death questions for the Communist International. just as in every country we must try to win for our struggle those petty‑bourgeois elements who are driven in the direction of the working class, the Communist International must be a beacon to light the way to the rebellious peoples in Asia and Africa. The Communist International must beat world capitalism not only through the popular masses of Europe but also those of the colonies. Capitalism will draw not only economic but also military support from the colonial peoples. The social revolution in Europe will have black troops to deal with yet. The duty of the Communist International is to proceed to deeds. The Russian Soviet Republic has taken this path, and if in Britain our painstaking work in the East, our conscious agitation for the formation of soviet organisations in Turkestan and in the Caucasus, and stretching out the first feelers to Persia and Turkey, are thought to be things that the Soviet Republic does in order to make difficulties for the British, then that is a misunderstanding of the foreign policy of the Soviet government. It is part of the programme of the Communist International, it is Soviet Russia fulfilling her duties as part of the Communist International. We do not regard the agitation in the East as a makeshift expedient in the fight against European capitalism, we regard it as a struggle we have a duty to carry out in the lasting interests of the European proletariat. This assistance does not consist in building artificial Communist Parties where there is no basis for them. It happens when we help these people. Comrade Lenin has pointed out that there is no theoretical necessity for every nationality to pass through the stage of capitalism. All the people who today are capitalists have not come to capitalism through the stage of manufacture. Japan passed straight from feudal conditions to the culture of imperialism. If the proletarian masses in Germany, France and Britain succeed in winning socialism, then we will go to the colonial peoples not only with the most modern means that capitalism has left us, but also with the production methods that socialism will create. We will help them to find a direct path from feudal barbarism to a form of production where they can apply the resources of modern technology without having to go through the stages of craft production and manufacture. We stand at the beginning of a new epoch. European capitalism fears the awakening of the oriental peoples; it talks about the ‘yellow peril’, and one can say that as long as capitalism exists there will be a yellow peril. The proletarianised peasants of China or Turkey, who are being skinned alive, will have to emigrate to seek work, will have to defend themselves in great mass migrations. But communism has no yellow peril to fear, it can reach out its hand to all oppressed peoples, for it brings them not exploitation but fraternal aid.
The Second International had focused on the urban and industrial classes, whereas in Russia and in the regions subjugated by imperialism an oppressed peasantry was ruled by big landed proprietors in societies where the remnants of Asiatic despotism coexisted with an indigenous capitalism imported by colonists, an indigenous bourgeoisie which had developed as a consequence, a class of poor peasant farmers, artisans, and an extremely small proletariat. It was necessary to evaluate the movement and the formidable potential of these forces, and utilize them for the world revolution led by the revolutionary proletariat and its global communist party.
“Of course the Second International understood nothing of this. It had condemned imperialism but then it had succumbed to it through failing to realize that the mobilization of all available forces against imperialism was what was needed: in the mother country the defeatism of social insurrection, and in the colonies and semi‑colonial countries the national revolt as well. It had got drawn in to defending the country; its traitorous leaders had dined at the imperialist banqueting table and invited the industrial workers to accept a few crumbs obtained from the ferocious exploitation of millions of human beings from across the sea.
“Today we, the Communist International, we, Soviet Russia, we, the communist parties which in all the progressive nations are striving to take power, we who have declared war on the bourgeoisie and their social-democratic servants, stipulate in the countries of the East an alliance between the newly arisen workers’ movements, the nascent communist parties and the revolutionary movements which are striving to expel the imperialist oppressors. We have discussed this, in the light of our doctrine, and established that we aren’t referring to bourgeois democratic movements here, but to revolutionary nationalist movements, since we cannot allow alliances with the bourgeois class but only with movements that are on the terrain of armed insurrection (…)
“What was the historical and economic context of Lenin’s speech in the Kremlin, and Zinoviev’s speech a few months later at Bakù? The theses specify that the chief task of the communist party is “to fight bourgeois democracy and expose its falseness and hypocrisy”. It is hypocritical because it conceals the reality of social oppression in the bourgeois world of the boss over the worker, and the reality of the oppression of the imperialist States large and small over their colonies and semi-colonies. In order to draw up our strategy in the East, Lenin’s theses reaffirm a number of key points. It is necessary to accelerate “the destruction of petty-bourgeois national illusions in the possibility of peaceful co‑existence and the equality of nations under capitalism”. But “it is impossible to abolish national oppression and inequality of rights” unless capitalism is overthrown. “The world political situation has now placed the dictatorship of the proletariat on the order of the day, and all events in world politics are necessarily concentrated on one central point, the struggle of the world bourgeoisie against the Russian Soviet Republic, which is rallying around itself both the soviet movements among the advanced workers in all countries, and all the national liberation movements in the colonies and among oppressed peoples”. The task of the Communist International also includes “the movement towards the creation of a unified world economy on a common plan controlled by the proletariat of all nations’ (…)
“The plan means that where in the East a struggle breaks out against the local theocratic or feudal agrarian regime, and at the same time against the colonial metropolis, communists both locally and internationally enter the struggle and support it. But this is not in order to defend the notion of a local, autonomous bourgeois democratic regime, but rather to trigger the permanent revolution, which will be secured in the Soviet dictatorship. Marx and Engels, Zinoviev recalled, always said it: he said it about Germany in 1848! (‘Oriente’, Prometeo, no.2, 1951.)
According to Edith Chabrier (I delegati al primo congresso dei popoli d’Oriente, “Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique”, Vol 26, no.1) in June 1920, the Executive Committee of the Communist International, took the decision to convene a Congress of the Peoples of the East, a decision which was published in the report on the activity of the Executive Committee which was read out at the 2nd Congress of the CI, which sat between July and August 1920.
At this Congress on the agenda were the conditions of admission of the communist parties, the national and colonial question, and the agrarian question. The Italian Left, which was to constitute itself as a Communist Party in the following year, intervened mainly regarding the parliamentary question and thus on tactics (the disastrous tactic of the united front with the opportunist parties would lead in fact to the squandering of the West’s entire revolutionary energy!), on the question of the split from the Italian Socialist Party, and on the conditions of admission, by introducing the famous 21st condition – which made it obligatory to accept them all! But it raised no objection to the theses on the agrarian and the colonial questions, and between 1920 and 1926 it would write key texts which built on these theses.
The 8th condition of admission already specified: “A particularly explicit and clear attitude on the question of the colonies and the oppressed peoples is necessary for the parties in these countries where the bourgeoisie possess colonies and oppress other nations. Every party which wishes to join the Communist International is obliged to expose the tricks and dodges of ‘its’ imperialists in the colonies, to support every colonial liberation movement not merely in words but in deeds, to demand the expulsion of their own imperialists from these colonies, to inculcate among the workers of their country a genuinely fraternal attitude to the working people of the colonies and the oppressed nations”.
On the occasion of the Report of the Commission on the National and the Colonial Questions presented on 26 July 1920, Lenin explained the cardinal idea underlying the theses as “the distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations”: about 70 per cent of the world’s population belonged to the oppressed nations. The other basic idea in the theses was that “the reciprocal relations between peoples and the world political system as a whole are determined by the struggle waged by a small group of imperialist nations against the Soviet movement and the Soviet States headed by Soviet Russia. Unless we bear that in mind, we shall not be able to pose a single national or colonial problem correctly”.
The ten Theses on the National and Colonial Questions were drawn up and presented by Lenin. The expression “bourgeois democratic movements”, which suggested a legalistic bourgeois bloc, was replaced by “revolutionary national movements”, in other words, those which placed themselves on the terrain of armed insurrection.
The Indian communist, Manabendra Nat Roy (Born in Bengal, but settled in Mexico and representing the Mexican CP at the congress), presented nine Supplementary Theses which were accepted by Lenin. The sixth supplementary thesis highlighted the connection between the agrarian and the national and colonial questions, evoking the rapid concentration of the land in the hands of the big landowners, local and foreign, and declared that the revolution’s first step must be the elimination in the colonies of the foreign domination which prevented the free development of social and economic forces. Its unequivocal conclusion was that “the struggle to overthrow foreign domination in the colonies does not therefore mean underwriting the national aims of the national bourgeoisie but much rather smoothing the path to liberation for the proletariat of the colonies”. The Stalinist counter-revolution would betray this principle, by participating in the sapping of the East’s revolutionary energy as well.
The 10th thesis presented by Lenin was just as explicit: “Proletarian internationalism demands: 1. Subordination of the interests of the proletarian struggle in one country to the interests of the struggle on a world scale; 2. that the nation which achieves victory over the bourgeoisie shall display the capacity and readiness to make the greatest national sacrifices in order to overthrow international capitalism”.
It was a matter, we would write, of forming in the countries of the East “an alliance between the new labour movement, the nascent communist parties, and the revolutionary parties trying to drive out the imperialist oppressors”, (Oriente), but not of succumbing to national petty-bourgeois illusions regarding the possibility of a peaceful co‑existence between nations under the capitalist regime. To repeat: “This meant that where in the East a struggle breaks out against the local theocratic or feudal agrarian regime, and at the same time against the colonial metropolis, communists both locally and internationally enter the struggle and support it. But this is not in order to defend the notion of a local, autonomous bourgeois democratic regime, but rather to trigger the permanent revolution, which will be secured in the Soviet dictatorship. Marx and Engels always said it (…) he said it about Germany in 1848!
We can therefore sum up the three consecutive periods as follows: up to 1870 support for national insurrections in the metropolis; from 1871 to 1917 insurrectional class struggle in the metropolis; one sole victory, in Russia. In Lenin’s time, class struggle in the metropolis and national-popular insurrections in the colonies, centred around revolutionary Russia, in compliance with a unique global strategy which will only ever be superseded when capitalist power has been overthrown in ALL countries”.
Lenin’s great vision of a unitary global economic plan was betrayed by the Stalinist counter-revolution, by Russia’s nationalist policy and by its multifarious alliances with bourgeois parties and States. The Stalinists would subordinate the revolutionary movements in the colonies and the social struggles of the western proletariat to the interests of the Russian State, which had become in its turn an imperialist State. Thus was the pyramid turned on its head, and instead of the Communist International controlling the Bolshevik party and through it the Russian State, the Russian State, having subordinated the Bolshevik party, would control the C.I., subordinating it to its national interests.
The meeting at Bakù
The aim of this congress was to connect the international communist movement, principally centred on the western countries and Russia, with the anti‑colonial and anti‑imperialist struggles provoked by the challenge to colonial power after the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire – Egypt in 1919, Iraq in 1920, Palestine in 1921 and 1924, Tunisia in 1922, and Rif in Syria – and to help the movement spread into other eastern countries. It was a case of utilizing the powerful energy that these movements contained for the ongoing global revolution. For this reason the C.I. wanted to bring together the greatest possible number of representatives of the forces of opposition, but without enough time to organize a really large assembly in the course of having to deal with military incursions and with problems around communication and travel.
In a speech to mark the third anniversary of the University for Toilers of the East on 21 April, 1924, Trotsky reviewed the facts. He explained that capitalism had two facets: the capitalism of the metropolis, whose classic example was Great Britain, and the capitalism of the colonies, a typical example of which was India. After the First World War the usurer capitalists, like Great Britain and the United States, made loans for the most part to the colonial countries to finance their industrial development (Asia, South America, South Africa). All this “prepares the mobilization of the countless proletarian masses who will at once burst out of a prehistoric, semi‑barbaric state and cast themselves into industry’s melting‑pot, the factory”. The national movement in the East is a progressive factor in history, even if the struggle is confined to national-bourgeois tasks. The young proletariat, Trotsky continued, must rest on this progressive movement, but the basic nucleus which will emerge from the University for Toilers of the East will act as a class leaven.
In the West, the development of the revolution may be held up, as in Great Britain by MacDonald, the leader of a Labour Government at the time, the most conservative force in Europe. The Great Britain of MacDonald “is toppling the left national bourgeois wing which is striving to Europeanize independent Afghanistan and is attempting there to restore to power the darkest and most reactionary elements imbued with the worst prejudices of pan‑Islamism, the Caliphate and so forth”. Exactly what the Imperialists States are doing everywhere now: organizing the “dark, reactionary pan‑islamism” of the Islamic State.
In June‑July 1920, the EC of the Third International launched an appeal To the oppressed popular masses of Persia, Armenia and Turkey (published in The Communist International, June‑July 1920) in which was denounced the ferocious oppression of the Persian government, who had sold out to the British capitalists, along with that of the English, French and Italian governments in Turkey, allied with the Beys and Effendis, and the enmity stoked up by the foreign capitalists between the Armenians, Turks and Kurds. The Appeal was also addressed to the peasants of Syria and Arabia, who after the fall of the Ottoman sultan had become ‘the slaves of the Paris and London Governments’. They were invited, in the name of the workers of Russia, Poland, Germany, France, England and America to send representatives to the “Congress of peasants and workers of Persia, Armenia and Turkey” to be held at Baku, to unite their struggles with those of the European proletariat to fight the common enemy. The appeal was addressed not only to the workers and peasants of the Near East (Mesopotamia, Syria, Arabia) but to delegates from India and the Muslim peoples living in Soviet Russia.
Bakù, the city chosen to host the congress, lies in Azerbaijan, an old province of the Russian empire, and in Bakù, thanks mainly to the large colony of workers, the bolsheviks established a soviet government in May 1918. Situated on the edge of the Caspian Sea it lies at the intersection of Asia and Europe, with Persia, Armenia and Turkey neighbours to this first Bolshevik bastion in Transcaucasia.
Thanks to its oil resources Bakù was an industrial city, and Azerbaijan the only Muslim country with a communist party before 1917. Rosmer relates that the oil wells were in a ruinous state and the workers, for the most part Persian, were housed in miserable hovels. Under the Tsarist Empire the province was treated like a colony and the Armenian bourgeoisie dominated the city; a patchwork of different peoples worked there, composed of Azeri, Russians, Armenians, Iranian Muslims and Tartars. Strikes had erupted in 1903, 1904, 1913 and 1914. In 1904 the revolutionary Hemmat (“Endeavour”) party was formed, which joined with other groups to form the revolutionary organization that in 1917 would become the Azerbaijan Revolutionary Party, which in its turn would take an active part in the Bolshevik Revolution and form the Azerbaijan CP in 1920. At the end of April 1920 the Azerbaijan Government, left in power by the retiring British troops, was overthrown by a communist rising in Bakù, and with the support of the central Russian government an Azerbaijani Socialist Soviet Republic was established.
At the beginning of June 1920 a Persian Soviet Socialist Republic was proclaimed in Rasht.
But in 1920 The Russian Bolsheviks, who had triumphed over the white counter-revolution and the Entente, were still threatened in Bakù, in the northern Caucasus, and in the Crimea, as they were in Turkestan where the Muslim Basmachi revolt broke out. The Polish armies backed by the Entente, and those commanded by the ex‑Russian officer Pyotr Nikolayevich Wrangel (a Baltic-German-Russian) occupied the Crimea and continued to afflict the region. In October 1920 Russia signed the peace treaty with Poland and routed Wrangel’s army.
To make preparations for the congress, according to Chabrier, who had access to Russian documents from 1920 to 1934, the EC appointed an organizational bureau whose members were G.K. Orjonikidze (Georgian Bolshevik who directed the political work of the Red Army in the Caucasus between 1918 and 1921 and president of the Caucasian bureau of the RCP(bolsheviks) from April 1920), E.D. Stasova (Russian Bolshevik, secretary of the Caucasian Bureau from July 1920), A.P. Mikoyan (Armenian Bolshevik, active in Bakù from 1917), Nari‑man Narimanov (Azerbaijani, member of RSDWP from 1905, one of the founders of Hemmat, president of the Revolutionary Committee of Azerbaijan), Said Gabiev, (Daghestani, member of the RCPb from 1918, president of the Revolutionary Committee of Daghestan between 1920 and 1922).
Selecting the delegates was no simple matter. The Turkish and Iranian sections in Bakù focused on getting representatives from their countries to come and a vast propaganda campaign was launched in the eastern areas controlled by the Bolsheviks. Apart from in Azerbaijan, where delegates were elected, representatives were usually nominated, as in Persia and Turkey, by the various communist parties. Numerous others had the mandate on behalf of local movements, sometimes entirely ethnic or nationalist based, without a party, who had risen up against imperialist oppression.
The Congress proceedings
The preparations for the Congress took place during an extremely tense political situation, with the Red Army advance on Warsaw, the Polish counter-offensive, Wrangel’s operations, and the British and Iranian hostilities to prevent delegates from getting to Baku such that several met their death on their way there and on their way back. The Persians and Turks were attacked by English ships and planes. Bolshevik ships were mobilised.
More than 2,000 delegates would attend: according to different estimates 336, or 469 Azerbajani (of Turkish, Azeri, Russian origin, etc), 202 Iranians, 137 Georgians, 131 Armenians, 105 Turks. Only 55 were women. The attendance requirements were not clearly defined by the organizers. 1,071 were declared communists (members of the RCPb or of recently constituted communist parties, such as those in Turkey and Iran), but Moscow’s policy, according to Edith Chabrier ( “Cahiers du monde russe et sovietique”, Vol 26, no.1), was to accept Muslims as well. 334 were sympathizers, 467 didn’t belong to any party.
The Turkish Communist Party held its first congress at Baku on 10 September 1920 with 74 delegates present; the Iranian Communist Party held its own at the end of June 1920 at Enzeli, which had come under Bolshevik control earlier on in the year. Within the Iranian party partisans of the social revolution came up against those interested only in the struggle against the British and the Shah. The Indian Communist Party was founded in October 1920 in Tashkent, capital of the Socialist Republic of Turkestan which was founded in 1918. Manabendra N. Roy its principal organizer refused to take part in the Baku congress, considering it, according to Pierre Broué in his history of the C.I, “a propagandist parade”. The Communist Party of Armenia sent 25 delegates. The Muslims in the Kars and Batum regions, who had created the Republic of South West Caucasia (December 1918 - April 1920) sent 102 delegates to Baku. Important delegations arrived from other regions where the Bolsheviks had managed to gain a foothold. Mustapha Kemal sent a non-voting delegate. The Indian, Korean, Chinese and Arab delegations were very small: three delegates each.
Many eastern nationalists had only joined the Communist Party because it was hostile to British imperialism. As to those who subscribed to no party at all, Zinoviev reported that a great many of them were sympathizers of the bourgeois parties (in his report to the EC on his return from Baku, cited in the Chabrier document). In the following year some of those present at the congress would form organizations which were hostile to the Bolsheviks.
Some of the delegates from the south of Russia and central Asia had attended with commercial considerations in mind: a Foreign Office report indicated that some delegates had arrived with local products to sell. And many western revolutionaries were troubled, some extremely upset, by the Muslims praying during the sessions.
With the various ethnic groups and the multitude of languages spoken it was very difficult to organize translations. One can imagine the congress as more like a colourful, noisy fair!
The western proletariat was represented by members of the C.I. who attended to defend and disseminate the Theses of the 2nd Congress on the colonial and national question [see previous issue]. Zinoviev, Radek and Bela Kun were accompanied by representatives of the colonialist countries: Tom Quelch (member of the British Socialist Party, elected to the E.C. of the C.I., who would become a member of the CPGB executive in 1923), the French syndicalist Alfred Rosmer, Jansen (member of the C.P. of the Low Countries since 1918, elected to the E.C. of the C.I.), the American journalist John Reed (member of the Communist Labor Party of the USA, founded in 1918) who died of typhus on his return from Baku, and other members of the C.I. Present were also specialists on Eastern questions: on the situation in Persia, the agrarian problems in Turkey, the situation in Turkestan.
See Lenin and Radek’s additional comments on the duties of British communists, as regards the national and colonial question, in the Archive section.
Zinoviev was nominated by acclamation president and all the members of the C.I. were involved on the organizational side of things.
The Congress began by expressing its solidarity with the Arab revolts of 1920 in Egypt, in 1919‑20 in Syria, 1920 in Iraq, and by the Young Turks.
The Turkish and Persian communists weren’t able to attend, but the delegates from central Asia could freely express their criticisms of the “survivals of Russian colonialism”. Muslim leaders from Turkestan in particular denounced the persecution of religious rites.
“It is Zinoviev, the president of the proletarian international, who reads the concluding manifesto: the men of colour respond to his call with one voice, brandishing their swords and scimitars. “Comrades! Brothers! The time has now come when you can set about organising a true people’s holy war against the robbers and oppressors. The Communist International turns today to the peoples of the East and says to them: ‘Brothers, we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against British imperialism!” But the war cry against Japanese imperialism is no different, and against it there is a call for a national insurrection of Koreans, whereas the Bolsheviks hatred of France and America emerges also in Zinoviev’s proclamation” (op.cit. Chabrier).
The way the congress was organized came in for a lot of criticism from the militant western communists. John Reed, author in 1919 of Ten Days that Shook the World, was a committed participant at the Congress, and also gave a speech, but he also spoke of the Congress’s “demagoguery and ostentation”. The Indian communist leader M.N. Roy didn’t go to the Baku Congress, stating in his memoirs it was a “wanton waste of time, energy and material resources” and that he refused to join the “picturesque cavalcade to the gates of the mysterious orient” and “Zinoviev’s circus at Baku”.
On the 14 October 1920 Zinoviev, at the Halle Congress in which the majority of the German Social-Democratic Party voted to join the C.I., gave a speech in which he had to respond to some violent criticism of the Baku Congress, including that concerning the concessions made by the C.I. delegates to religious prejudice: “It is obvious that the Mullahs of Khiva are not communists. But the 3rd International is facing the necessity of talking to the workers of the entire world, and not just from a European perspective. We must bring the light to the mullahs of Khiva, in a form adapted to their country. We want to carry them along with us, we want to get them to rise up against their oppressors. And we can only achieve this aim by acting in the way we have (…). If we aspire to world revolution, if we want to free the proletariat from the chains of capitalism, we cannot think only of Europe, we have to turn our gaze also towards Asia (…) Comrades, it will be impossible to have a world revolution if we do not set Asia on its feet. Asia is four times more populated than Europe; its peoples, like ours, are exploited, oppressed and dominated by capitalism (…) When I saw thousands of Persians and Turks at Baku singing the Internationale with us (…) I felt the breath of world revolution (…) We have smiled, in this room, to hear that I supposedly “preached holy war” at Baku. I said this: “Peoples of the East, you have often heard the call to holy war, as did the European workers in 1914, at the time of the imperialist war! Peoples of the East, it was a cursed war! But today, we urge you to start a real holy war against the bourgeoisie and against the oppressors of all humanity”. Comrades is there anything in these words that is religious or demagogic?” (From Bulletin Communiste, no.25, 1921, French committee of the 3rd International).
At Baku we exclaimed to the delegates: “Oppressed peoples of the entire world, unite against your exploiters” and they agreed with us. He continued: “Comrades, you do not want to admit that this Congress was a historical event: you imagined it was or have described it as a manoeuvre on the part of our government. It was instead, comrades, a revolutionary act; an act of hostility against English capitalism”.
He added that during the Baku Congress a Council of Action and Propaganda had been organized, with 48 members representing 28 peoples and with two representatives of the C.I. with a right of veto. “The peoples of the East found it entirely natural that the most advanced fraction of the working class should have an educational and guiding role (…) We must elevate the peoples of the East, appeal to them, help them, because without them, comrades, we will not shake off the yoke of the bourgeoisie”.
This Council of Action led to the creation in Tashkent of an Institute of Propaganda and of the University of the Eastern Peoples, with branches in Baku and in Irkutsk, in eastern Siberia, which welcomed the first young militant Arabs. Its task was to forge the future communists from the East. In 1922 an Eastern Office was opened to co‑ordinate the action of the communists in the zones under the domination of the western powers. This was divided into three sections: North Africa, Middle East, Southern and South-Eastern Asia, and was directed to begin with by Radek.
Over the course of the 1920s a number of communist parties were formed in countries outside Europe, bordering the USSR and in the Middle East. In India the work of Roy started to bear fruit despite the systematic repression of the British authorities and strained relations with the Congress Party, whose leaders, Nehru and Gandhi, supported non‑violence. The Indian Communist Party was founded in 1925; the Chinese Communist Party in 1922.
But before long they would have to cope with the degeneration of the Comintern. From 1928 onwards, its incoherent actions and strategic inversions on the national question would be extremely damaging. Analogous was the influence of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
The Krestintern, The International Peasant Council, was founded in October 1923 and its first congress, under Zinoviev’s leadership, brought together more than 48 nationalities in order to define some theses pertaining to the peasant class. It also set itself the objective of disseminating the world revolution by uniting the workers in the fields with the workers in the cities. But it would equally suffer from the repercussions of the Comintern’s degeneration.
What were the effects of the Baku Congress? In 1920, in his book Moscow under Lenin, Alfred Rosmer wrote: “This congress, incontestably the first of its kind in which we had managed to bring together representatives of all of the countries, peoples and races of the East, did not in the short term yield as much as expected; and in the ensuing months there were no revolts so important as to cause disquiet or serious concern to the imperialist powers. The shock was deep but it didn’t make itself felt until later; it needed time for the debates and resolutions to bear their fruit, to bring together sufficient forces, conscious of the struggle that needed to be embarked on against the bosses, until then omnipotent”.
Unfortunately the forces of the counter-revolution would prevail and Lenin’s prospect of a world socialist republic was postponed.
National Independence no longer on the agenda, not even in the East.
Today the situation in the East has been totally turned upside down by global capitalist development. The question of the independence of nations is no longer posed. But the agrarian question is still on the agenda, due to the persistence in those regions of a large mass of poor landless peasants and smallholders. However, by now the world communist revolution has all the economic and social bases it needs by which to pass directly to communism without national questions being resolved beforehand.
The ‘Oriente’ article referred to earlier (from “Prometeo”, no.2, 1951) concludes as follows: “Yesterday’s anti‑fascist and anti‑German policy of the Western bloc, and today’s policy of the Eastern bloc – supposedly anti‑capitalist yet no longer subscribing to the world socialist republic but to a national and popular democracy even phonier than that proclaimed in Washington – let them both be defined in the same way Lenin defined the social nationalism of 1914: betrayal. And let them both be defined as such by a reconstituted unity of organization and of struggle of the exploited and oppressed of all countries. For until that occurs, there will be no peace that is desirable, no war that is not an abomination”.
That is where we still are: let working class organizations on a global scale, the organization of the exploited and the oppressed of all countries be reborn! Long live the world communist revolution!
Report presented at the party general meeting in Turin, September 2015
1. A Recap
In this study’s previous chapter we described the formation of an independent party of the Irish proletariat, separate from the bourgeoisie. Unlike the socialist movement on the larger island, which was conducting a similar battle for political independence, in Ireland the party also had the problem of correctly delimiting itself from the rising national independence movement. In other words, the workers’ movement in Ireland was seeking its independence from the bourgeoisie at the same time as the Irish bourgeoisie was seeking its independence from the English bourgeoisie. Within this dynamic the new party, the Irish Republican Socialist Party, had the task, riding the wave of the national movement, and stepping beyond it towards the political achievements of communism.
In this third part we will follow the progress of the new wave of trade unionism in Ireland among the unskilled workers from around 1907.
For this period we are heavily reliant on the source material we have available, which tends, unwittingly or otherwise, to emphasise the activity of ‘great men’, and often to the detriment of the study of the social and historical environment which shapes their actions and thoughts. In order to deepen our analysis and arrive at an adequate knowledge of the facts, by identifying the different currents which arose out of the combining within the movement of the different social classes in Ireland, we have to overcome this naivety and tendency to gossip about individuals,
Marxism in fact sees the activity of individuals as determined by the economic interests of the classes within a specific spatial and temporal context. Therefore here, too, when we refer to James Connolly and James Larkin by name, and they pop up over and over again in the history of the period we are examining, we do so for explanatory purposes, because they were two of the most faithful expressions of the movement, trade‑unionist and political, of the whole of the working class in Ireland, expressing its development and manifesting its strengths and weaknesses, and within which both were activists and leaders. We therefore follow the stories of their militant involvement as a guiding thread through a complex transitional phase, seeing them as simultaneously the expression of the anonymous and powerful historical forces of anti‑imperialism and nationalism, and of the birth of an independent movement of the working class.
2. The National Union of Dock Workers
The National Union of Dock Labourers (NUDL) which we touched on in the previous chapter, was one of the ‘new unions’ of unskilled workers which formed under the impulse of the major strike wave of 1889‑90. By now it was Liverpool based and colloquially known as ‘the Irish union’ because of its composition and leadership. The latter, with James Sexton, pursued a non‑confrontational approach, preferring legal tactics such as parliamentary enquiries, extension of the Factory Acts and the rigorous application of safety regulations, etc. However in 1905, the year in which he would become President of the TUC, he would be compelled to back an unofficial strike called to maintain a closed shop among foreman within the firm of T & J Harrison. The Shipping Federation was quick to supply scabs to the firm and after ten weeks the strike ended in defeat. However during the dispute NUDL member Jim Larkin had organized a new branch of the union, with 1,200 members, and the union executive appointed him temporary organiser.
In that year, Larkin would also work as Sexton’s election agent, helping him get elected to the Liverpool City Council. In the following year he would support Sexton’s campaign to become Labour MP for a Liverpool constituency, which was unsuccessful, however it was in the 1906 general elections that the Labour Party as a whole would obtain its first great electoral success.
Larkin would shortly be appointed to the permanent post of National Organiser within the union and go on to conduct a successful recruitment campaign throughout Scotland and the North of England.
3. Still the Parliamentary Siren
Morale amongst the Irish workers was high at the time, and it seemed a good time to set about re‑organising the Irish ports.
In January 1907 at the conference of the British Labour Party there would be a clash between the two wings of the party. For two or three years a number of delegates, led by Ben Tillett (another of the dockers’ leaders from 1889) had been fighting a campaign to make the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) accountable to the party conference, which represented the party outside parliament. But the MPs rejected this position as impracticable, claiming that they needed to adapt to day‑to‑day parliamentary tactics. In the end a compromise solution was arrived at in which the PLP had to have joint discussions with the National Executive Committee (NEC) about how Conference decisions would be implemented in Parliament. But from then on, since both the NEC and the PLP were focused on activity in Parliament, the unavoidable corrupting rightward drift of party representatives could proceed unchecked by Conference decisions.
William Morris had been right to voice his concerns about this issue a few years before. But to many workers the only alternative to this submission to democracy and electoralism still seemed at the time to be anarchism. Making a serious error they believed they could turn to a new type of trade-unionism and a more extreme seeming politics in order to prevent the movement becoming trapped within a legalitarian and parliamentary perspective. As we will see, this search would lead to syndicalism, with De Leon its maximum exponent.
4. The Dockers of Belfast
In the last decade of the 19th Century the population of Belfast had grown more than anywhere else, from 256,000 to 349,000. In 1801 it had had only 19,000 inhabitants. By 1907 it had grown even more, to around 400,000 and had become the most highly industrialised area in Ireland, with large shipyards and a centre of the linen industry. Here, as the writings of James Connolly record, appalling exploitation reigned, and thousands of unskilled workers were completely unorganised and worked a 16‑hour day for a mere pittance.
But the previous year had seen a rise in workers’ militancy favoured by an upturn in the trade cycle and in May of that year 17,000 spinners, weavers and others had struck for wage increases. The wages system in the port was chaotic with different rates sometimes being paid for the same job on the same ship. The port gave employment to 3,100 dockers at this time, of which 1,000 were permanent and the rest ‘spell‑men’, casuals paid by the hour. There were also 1,500 carters engaged by the shipping companies or master carriers supplying the docks.
By April, the union in Belfast had recruited 2,900 dockers and carters in Belfast and a further 1,000 in Derry.
Since the end of the Boer war sectarian tensions had waned, to the extent that two of the militants who assisted Larkin set up the local branch of the NUDL were respectively Michael McKeown, a nationalist councillor, and Alex Boyd, a leader of the Independent Orange Order, which had split from the Orthodox Orange order in 1903. The religious divisions, however, remained. Belfast’s cross‑channel dockers were mostly Protestants and in regular employment while the more casual work provided by deep‑sea vessels was left to the Catholics. Their meetings would be conducted at separate venues.
The NUDL would affiliate to the Belfast Trades’ Council, which Larkin urged to associate itself with independent labour politics. Larkin would also campaign on behalf of William Walker, the prominent Belfast trade‑unionist and ILPer, and later antagonist of James Connolly (see Archives of the Left). In trade unionist matters Larkin, like Sexton, would avoid unnecessary confrontation, especially on the issues of union recognition or the closed shop, and pursue legal tactics. As with Sexton in 1905, militancy by the membership, provoked by the employer’s intransigence, would force his hand.
5. The Belfast strike of 1907
1907 would see a rise in industrial struggles in Belfast prompted by a rise in retail prices of 10%. There would be thirty‑four strikes in the city that year, beginning with a series of stoppages by textile operatives in February and subsequently affecting engineering, the service trades, navvies and other labourers.
On 26 April, some NUDL coal‑heavers were dismissed by Samuel Kelly Ltd and 400 colleagues stopped work in protest. On 6 May, seventy spell‑men at the York Dock of the Belfast Steam Company struck against the employment of two non‑union men. Larkin opposed both strikes, preferring to rely on legal tactics and negotiation. In the former case this was successful, and Kelly agreed to settle, but when the spell‑men returned to work, urged to do so by the union to allow negotiations to continue, they found their places had been filled by English dockers who had been imported through the Shipping Federation and 160 of the company’s dockers found themselves locked out.
Although this was a relatively minor dispute, the Belfast Steamship company were in no hurry to reach an agreement because they had another objective: having felt the effects of the NUDL’s success in organizing unskilled labor, they wanted to destroy the union altogether.
The fact that Sexton didn’t authorize strike pay when the strike got underway showed that the union’s leaders didn’t back it. Instead nightly meetings, parades and street collections were organized to support the strikers. A rally on 16 May drawing over 6,000 participants was followed by clashes with the police. Larkin was arrested after getting involved in a fight with a group of scabs, but later released.
On 20 June the union escalated the struggle by calling for a wage increase for all cross‑channel dockers: the strike was now no longer sectional and on 26 June 300 men joined the struggle. The next day 200 carters who carried goods from the docks struck work in sympathy and made their own wage claim, many of them leaving the tame Carters’ Association to join the NDLU.
More scabs arrived from the Shipping Federation and 500 soldiers sealed off the quays from pickets.
The carters’ dispute brought another issue to the fore: the right to refuse to work with scabs or handle ‘tainted goods’. When the majority of carters backed Larkin on this point and the master carters refused to negotiate with the NUDL, a generalised struggle was at hand.
Attempts were now made to split the strike by appealing to sectarian loyalties. The unionist press questioned whether it was appropriate for a catholic to lead a struggle of largely Protestant workers. Larkin adroitly offered to hand over the leadership of the strike to Alexander Boyd, who rejected the resignation offer. Boyd would declare that the Establishment’s attempt to divide the men on the religious issue “would not be successful because men of all creeds were determined to stand together in fighting the common enemy, the employer who denied the right of the workers to a fair wage”.
The union now issued a manifesto threatening a general strike at the port. The bigger carriers and the coal merchants retaliated en bloc and by July 15 they had locked out 1,680 carters and porters. Some 2,340 men were now affected, of which only 570 had taken strike action.
On 19 July Sexton arrived with two officials of the British General Federation of Trade Unions, which was in effect a mutual strike Fund of some TUC affiliates. Although bringing much needed financial help, their over‑riding concern was to bring the dispute to a swift conclusion. An end to the coal merchants’ lockout was negotiated by Sexton and the Federation agents on 25 July. According to the historian Emmett O’Connor, “The men accepted wages rates that had been offered six weeks earlier and agreed to work with non‑unionists. It was not clear whether the union had been officially recognised or not. Larkin loyally hailed the outcome as a breakthrough but only two weeks later he would complain that his plans had been spoiled by ‘three Englishmen in his absence who knew nothing about the situation’”.
The day after the settlement the Belfast working class stood solidly together. On July 26 a grand trades’ council procession pointedly wound its way around East Belfast to the Falls and Shankill Roads. 100,000 people turned up, led by Larkin, Mckeown, Boyd and Lindsay Crawford, president of the Independent Orange Order (which had made a collection for the strike during the twelfth of July parade).
6. Police Mutiny
But if the day before a settlement had been made with the coal merchants, discontent had broken out in another, unexpected quarter. Just days before long simmering discontent over pay and working conditions among the lower ranks of the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) had broken out in particularly dramatic fashion. Conscious that their own demands were remarkably similar to those being expressed by the strikers, they would soon find that their invidious position as the employers’ strong‑arm men presented an intolerable contradiction.
Little had been moving in Belfast without a police escort until one Constable Barrett refused to ride with a blackleg carter; an act which resulted in his dismissal. Led by Constable Barrett, and with the union’s support, the police presented their demands; the authorities tried to arrest Barrett and on July 24, the police mutinied. On July 27 600 RIC men took over the Musgrave Street barracks and Constable Barrett was carried to the Custom House steps to speak to both the workers and the police.
At the beginning of August the mutiny was suppressed. Over 270 RIC men were transferred from the city and an extra 6,000 troops were poured into the city. Even the navy was alerted to anchor warships in Belfast Lough.
But the strike in the port continued and the authorities now made another attempt to inflame sectarian passions by stationing some of the recently arrived troops in the Catholic Falls Road area. Violence flared and on the 11th August rioting broke out with the military shooting dead a man and a girl, with five others wounded.
With the potential for religious and political rioting to sweep away the Belfast workers’ united stand, Larkin proclaimed: “Not as Catholics or Protestants, as Nationalists or Unionists, but as Belfast men and workers, stand together and don’t be misled by the employers’ game of dividing Catholic and Protestant”.
The British government now intervened and sent in a Board of Trade conciliator. Working alongside Sexton and the Federation officials a sectional approach was once again taken, with the carters’ strike being dealt with first. On 15 August Sexton persuaded the carters to accept the terms offered. Employers conceded a wage increase and shorter hours. There would be no victimisation, but no guarantee of re‑employment or union recognition.
After the Board of Trade, whose loyalties were inevitably on the side of the employers, failed to get concessions, the dockers’ strike would collapse piecemeal and on rather worse terms than the carters.
As far as Sexton and co. were concerned the strike had been settled but Larkin didn’t agree. A month later he told the Belfast Trades Council that there had been no settlement and that the men had been forced back to work because of the union’s refusal to continue paying the strike money.
“The final act of the great Belfast Strike wave would be played out in mid November when 300 coal heavers struck against recruitment by a sectarian company union. Thirty carters and fifty crane men came out in sympathy, and coal boats were blacked in ports across Ireland. After some of the cranemen and coal heavers returned to work Sexton arrived in Belfast on 26 November, but the NUDL branch insisted that Larkin be present in settlement talks. “Instead Sexton met the employers alone, instructed the men to resume work, with the assurance that ‘no advantage would be taken of any man’ and Board of Trade arbitration would follow, and then left on the Liverpool boat that evening. The next day, the majority of the strikers were informed that their jobs had been filled. Board of Trade arbitration never came”. (O’Connor)
The two different approaches to economic struggle, of Sexton on the one hand, and Larkin on the other, the latter representing a broader class based approach, were clearly incompatible and an organisational split would not be long in coming.
7. The Lessons of the Belfast Strike
The first lesson is that the class can attain its maximum strength when it rises above its multiple divisions and mobilises as a united force. The confirmation of this is the great effort made on the part of the official trade union movement to undermine this solidarity. As well as the active solidarity shown by the different sectors directly involved in the strike, other sectors would make extensive sacrifices to sustain it financially.
The NUDL would survive in Belfast after the strike and Larkin would continue to receive the enthusiastic support of the union’s rank‑and‑file members whereas James Sexton, at the union’s annual conference in May 1908, more than six months after the end of the strike, would receive a very rough reception.
The strike also showed what the working classes could achieve when the religious wedge, consciously driven through the Irish working class by the ruling classes, was ignored. Allegations made by the Belfast Evening Telegraph that Catholics had received higher strike pay than Protestants, and that the strike had targeted companies employing Protestants were rejected by the trades council in October, and Alex Boyd and the Belfast Trades’ Council, representing mainly Protestant trade unionists, declared they would gladly stand with Larkin again.
The 1907 strike created a sense of class solidarity in Belfast that was so enduring that the Protestant bourgeoisie would only be able to destroy it by instituting a regime of total sectarian apartheid. In 1912, the series of demonstrations orchestrated by the Northern Industrialists against Home Rule would result in violent attacks on Catholic workers, and in July 1912, 2,200 Catholic workers would be driven from the Belfast shipyards.
Much later, in July 1920, in the midst of the civil war and as the prospect of partition loomed, the elections showed that “Unionist” Ulster was still overwhelmingly for the Republic. Unionist leaders would then address Protestant workers in the Belfast shipyards and call for a “Holy War” to drive out the “Catholic traitors”. By August 20 of that year not a single Catholic out of the 5,000 previously employed in the shipyards remained. The death toll mounted as men, women and children were, killed or driven southward by frenzied Orange mobs, encouraged with the full propaganda energies of the northern capitalists. A major demographic redistribution, an ‘ethnic cleansing’ was taking place, and all to further the interests of the capitalists in the more industrialised North.
And to describe the northern capitalists of this era as ‘unionist’ is certainly a more appropriate epithet than ‘loyalist’, because, if push came to shove, they were clearly also prepared to be part of a ‘union’ with Germany. Indeed in August 1913 the leader of the unionists, Sir Edward Carson, would lunch with the German Kaiser in Hamburg where tentative discussions for aid to Ulster were discussed. For ‘Union’ with Germany, Carson would make clear, was preferable, in the northern industrialist’s book, to union with an (artificially) undeveloped, agrarian southern Ireland and the relatively small market it represented. Their interests no longer lay in the creation of the small home market, bounded by protectionism, which was the goal of the Southern nationalists. Carson had sent a clear message to the British ruling class about what might happen if they tried to enforce Home Rule on the predominantly Protestant North.
Thus many protestant workers would be persuaded that their interests, and their privileged access to the jobs market, was linked to the interests of their co‑religionist employers.
Divide and Rule: this was a technique the British ruling class had been perfecting over the centuries in its various colonies, pitting tribes, religions, or sects within religions, against each other as the occasion demanded; and in the North of Ireland the technique would be refined even further as Protestants and Catholic worker would be set at each others throats again and again, all in order to prevent the workers within the contending parties from identifying their own common interests and common enemy.
The third lesson that we can draw from the Belfast strike is that it showed the class’s need for political expression: for a party able to counter the tendency of the trade union leaders to depict the problems of the working class as resolvable only within the parameters of the capitalist mode of production and its labour market; a party capable of providing a perspective built on class solidarity and the knowledge that all economic struggles are ultimately bound to fail unless linked to the long‑term perspective of the abolition of wage labour; a party capable of exalting the destructive force of mass class action rather than condemning it; a party with an international communist perspective..
That this necessity was beginning to dawn is witnessed by the fact that five new branches of the Belfast Independent labour Party (ILP) were created in that year.
And it was a lesson which was firmly on the agenda when the Irish TUC met in Belfast in 1908, where an ILP member, John Murphy of the Belfast Trades Council, made his first presidential speech endorsing “the alliance between trade unions and Socialists”.
8. Expansion beyond Belfast
A thriving new branch of the NUDL had been founded in Dublin, which had raised funds for the Belfast workers. A branch of the ILP had also been formed in the city, which Larkin represented at the ILP annual conference in April 1908. Over the summer he attended the fortnightly meetings of the Dublin trades’ council and was elected to the Irish Trade Union Congress (ITUC) Parliamentary Committee in June.
Larkin never ruled out the use of arbitration and legal means on principle, and would use the mechanisms for conciliation and arbitration by the Board of Trade that had been approved by the government around the time of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act, which in its turn had restored trade union immunities in lawful strikes and guaranteed the right of peaceful picketing. Indeed every week between January and March 1908 he would cross the channel to sit on a government commission on dock wages; but he never lost that awareness that negotiations and agreements, and political and legal settlements regarding the mutually incompatible interests of capital and labour, were never anything but snap shots of the current balance of class forces; and every dispute was ultimately decided by force, or the credible threat of it.
But it was not long before the Dublin Coal Masters’ Association attempted to break the union with a lock‑out. Once again the employers resorted to the tactic of appealing directly to the Union Executive in England, which was happy once again to settle above Larkin’s head. Sexton arrived to take over negotiations and assured the employers they would not have to deal with Larkin and that members need not display the union badge during working hours, contrary to NUDL rules.
A split was now becoming inevitable.
In Cork in November, 800 men formed a section of the union: they had not received a wage increase in twenty years. After negotiations for a wage increase failed, on 9 November 150 dockers went on strike. The usual tactic of importing blackleg labour was resorted to and the dockers were replaced by 150 blacklegs supplied by the Shipping Federation. The employers were clearly prepared to invest a lot of money in breaking the strike and the blacklegs were offered as much as thirty shillings a week, with lodgings, food and free liquor thrown in, whilst the regular Dockers employed by the company got twenty‑two shillings a week.
Larkin arrived in Cork and on 12 November negotiated a return to work pending arbitration. On 8 December, the Dockers found that Larkin had successfully negotiated a very substantial victory over the employers for, with only minor modifications, their claims were met. And all this despite the fact that Sexton and Co. had disowned the strike and refused an appeal for funds.
Since the end of September, the Dublin carters had been agitating for an increase in wages. The employers refused to recognise the union and on 16 November the carters in four firms struck work. The union refused to support it but the local trades council nevertheless backed the dispute, as indeed did large sections of public opinion, even including the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who contributed to the strike fund!
The following day, the strike extended to 320 men and a day later canalmen came out in a separate dispute. Over the next five weeks, the two strikes would escalate to involve over 1,000 workers. As negotiations got underway, Larkin emphasised that there would be no settlement unless the employers recognised the rights of the men to combine. On 20 November it seemed that Larkin had secured his main goal: union recognition and the men returned to work. But a few days later the employers broke off negotiations. Once again the workers were out on strike. The union accepted the challenge and escalated action, broadening the struggle in the way that would come to define what was referred to at the time as ‘Larkinism’. Negotiations were resumed and then broken off again on 11 December.
There were now threats of a local transport strike; there were solidarity and sympathetic actions with a view to rallying such large numbers of workers that they would overstretch the police and the employers. Larkin stated in the press that he hoped the day would come when the employers “would have to face a citizen army”.
As a matter of fact, on 3 December, Larkin had announced that posses of strikers would be formed to police districts from which the Dublin Metropolitan Police had been withdrawn, stimulating a debate within the movement about whether these groups should be armed or not.
On 12 December the maltsters came out on strike, this third dispute swelling the numbers to 2,500. The Union’s national executive had informed Larkin he was on his own as regards funds. The position seemed desperate; but a week later the employers caved in and on 21 December the dispute went back to arbitration. If one takes into account the high unemployment and Sexton’s hostility, the result was good.
In late November, due to Larkin’s refusal to obey the union’s order to transfer to Aberdeen, to get him away from the strike, the executive gave Sexton the right to suspend him. On December 7, Sexton wrote to Larkin suspending him from office for ‘breach of discipline’ and soon afterwards persuaded the executive council to dismiss him altogether.
9. The split in the National Union of Dock Labourers
Larkin replied: “There was a movement on foot for organising the whole of unskilled labour in Ireland” and although he was in favour of the international federation of labour, he believed the first step was organising Irish workers as Irishmen seperately and then to federate. This marked a change in Larkin’s perspective, who had previously held by the ILP position which supported the link of Irish trade unions those in England, justified in the name of an ‘internationalism’ by the ILP sections in Belfast, but in fact used to oppose the struggle for Irish independence (see Archives of the Left).
This rift between “Larkin’s” approach and “Sexton’s” revealed two opposing methods. The former method counted on class unity when conducting economic struggles, it emphasised workers solidarity and spreading strikes from sector to sector; this made their true nature clearer, that the ultimate enemy of the workers engaged in economic struggles was the employing class as a whole: capitalism.
This method took the workers through a series of practical demonstrations which showed not only that there was a greater chance of winning immediate struggles if different sectors of workers backed each other, but that the different sectors of workers were facing a common enemy, which meant that their economic struggles ultimately raised the political question of class interests and class power.
The view of the NUDL executive, on the other hand, was far more restricted. The union, as far as they were concerned, was a self‑contained entity whose task was to defend its members in the first place by negotiation and secondly through laws. But, caught up in its spirit of self‑preservation, when the union finances started to run low, financial support for a strike had to be withdrawn. Thus on several occasions the interests of the NUDL as a corporate entity conflicted with all‑out, no holds barred, strikes, and with the necessity, in the interests of working class solidarity, for sacrifices by the relatively strong to be made in the interests of weaker sections, when the form and extension of the struggle became more important than the immediate objectives of the struggle itself.
The NUDL did not intend therefore to make sacrifices to build up the Irish branches, which would have incurred extra expense. In fact this was a rather myopic view, not even encompassing the NUDL’s already restricted vision; the Belfast strike, having given evidence of the union’s high potential, had in fact increased the NUDL’s membership among British workers, and the union’s finances had improved as result!
In fact beneath the opposition between the two methods, which was not really about managing the union’s finances, there lay two social programmes with increasingly incompatible forecasts of how conflict between the classes would be resolved: a gradual change which respected constitutional government on one side, a revolutionary communist one on the other.
(to be continued)
From the Archives
As a supplement to our study of the history of the communist and labour movement in Ireland, the third chapter of which is published within these pages, we have once again selected a few contemporary documents to give a sense of the historical backdrop against which the class and party struggles of the time took place.
That backdrop is constituted by a social tradition and environment which we loosely define as Anglo‑Saxon, to distinguish it from the slightly different situation that existed on the continent. And indeed further work by the party is still required in order to deepen our understanding of these differences, and to better assess the implications.
The first two texts, from 1911, arose in a situation of incipient double revolution.
James Connolly, leader of the Socialist Party of Ireland, pleads the case for the formation of a single socialist party in Ireland, which should at the very least insert national autonomy in its programme, and organizationally separate from the British socialist movement
As opposed to the circumstances under which the First International was formed, the Second International had seen, and was based, on the enormous growth and success of socialist parties on the national scale in all of the major European countries. Certainly a major step forward for the international working class, which made Marxism its exclusive doctrine, which then the Second International would however betray in its slide towards nationalism and federalism. However, in 1911, if there was an Italian Socialist Party, a French Socialist Party, and a German Social Democratic Party, why, Connolly was entitled to ask, shouldn’t there be one in Ireland? Behind any rejection of this, even if disguised as “Internationalism”, there was really, in fact, just submission to the overwhelming, oppressive brute force of English imperialism.
What is also noteworthy is how the question of the nascent Labour Parties was approached. Connolly, and along with him every other socialist from the British Isles at the time, is favourable to the formation in Ireland of a Labour Party (it, as well, to be separate from the British one). In their view, this was prompted by the need for the trade unions to have parliamentary representation, to have their natural delegates in Parliament, sent there by the militant vote of the workers, with the executive mandate to get laws passed which favoured the working class. Connolly therefore saw no contradiction in the contemporaneous presence, side by side, of a Socialist Party and a Labour Party. In the United Kingdom, even today, following countless examples of betrayal by the Labour Party, which, totally and irreversibly, is now a particularly loathsome bourgeois party, there are still those who see the British working class as structured in three tiers: Unions-Labour-Political Party.
The final text is one by Lenin on Ireland, ‘The English Liberals and Ireland’, from 1914. After having summarized the imperial domination of the island, he denounces the perpetual submission of the English Liberals to the class of landed proprietors, who would then postpone to an indefinite future any concession to Irish self-government.
The British Liberals and Ireland
Put Pravdy No. 34, March 12, 1914
What is taking place today in the British Parliament in connection with the Bill on Irish Home Rule is of exceptional interest as far as class relationships and elucidation of the national and the agrarian problems are concerned.
For centuries England has enslaved Ireland, condemned the Irish peasants to unparalleled misery and gradual extinction from starvation, driven them off the land and compelled hundreds of thousands and even millions of them to leave their native country and emigrate to America. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Ireland had a population of five and a half millions; today the population is only four and one‑third millions. Ireland has become depopulated. Over five million Irish emigrated to America in the course of the nineteenth century, so that there are now more Irish in the United States than there are in Ireland!
The appalling destitution and sufferings of the Irish peasantry are an instructive example of the lengths to which the landowners and the liberal bourgeoisie of a “dominant” nation will go. Britain owes her “brilliant” economic development and the “prosperity” of her industry and commerce largely to her treatment of the Irish peasantry, which recalls the misdeeds of the Russian serf‑owner Saltychikha.
While Britain “flourished”, Ireland moved towards extinction and remained an undeveloped, semi‑barbarous, purely agrarian country, a land of poverty-stricken tenant farmers. But much as the “enlightened and liberal” British bourgeoisie desired to perpetuate Ireland’s enslavement and poverty, reform inevitably approached, the more so that the revolutionary eruptions of the Irish people’s fight for liberty and land became more and more ominous. The year 1861 saw the formation of the Irish revolutionary organisation of Fenians. Irish settlers in America gave it every assistance.
With the formation, in 1868, of the government of Gladstone – that hero of the liberal bourgeoisie and obtuse philistines – the era of reform in Ireland set in, an era which has dragged on very nicely till the present day, i.e., just under half a century. Oh, the wise statesmen of the liberal bourgeoisie are very well able to “make haste slowly” in the matter of reform!
Karl Marx, who had been living in London for over fifteen years, followed the struggle of the Irish with great interest and sympathy. He wrote to Frederick Engels on November 2, 1867: “I have done my best to bring about this demonstration of the English workers in favour of Fenianism.... I used to think the separation of Ireland from England impossible. I now think it inevitable, although after the separation there may come federation...”. Reverting to the same subject in a letter dated November 30th of the same year, Marx wrote: “The question now is, what shall we advise the English workers? In my opinion they must make the repeal of the Union [of Ireland with England] (in short, the affair of 1783, only democratised and adapted to the conditions of the time) an article of their pronunziamento. This is the only legal and therefore only possible form of Irish emancipation which can be admitted in the programme of an English [workers’] party”. And Marx went on to show that what the Irish needed was Home Rule and independence of Britain, an agrarian revolution and tariffs against Britain.
Such was the programme proposed to the British workers by Marx, in the interests of Irish freedom, of accelerating the social development and freedom of the British workers; because the British workers could not become free so long as they helped to keep another nation in slavery (or even allowed it).
Alas! Owing to a number of special historical causes, the British workers of the last third of the nineteenth century proved dependent upon the Liberals, impregnated with the spirit of liberal-labour policy. They proved to be, not at the head of nations and classes fighting for liberty, but in the wake of the contemptible lackeys of the money‑bags, the British Liberals.
And the Liberals have for half a century been dragging out Ireland’s liberation, which has not been completed to this day! It was not until the twentieth century that the Irish peasant began to turn from a tenant farmer into a free holder; but the Liberals have imposed upon him a system of land purchase at a “fair” price! He has paid, and will continue to pay for many years, millions upon millions to the British landlords as a reward for their having robbed him for centuries and reduced him to a state of chronic starvation. The British liberal bourgeois has made the Irish peasant thank the landlord for this in hard cash....
A Home Rule Bill for Ireland is now going through Parliament. But in Ireland there is the Northern province of Ulster, which is inhabited partly by English‑born Protestants as distinct from the Catholic Irish. Well then, the British Conservatives, led by Carson, the British version of our Black‑Hundred landlord Purishkevich, have raised a frightful outcry against Irish Home Rule. This, they say, means subjecting Ulstermen to an alien people of alien creed! Lord Carson has threatened rebellion, and has organised gangs of reactionary armed thugs for this purpose.
An empty threat, of course. There can be no question of a rebellion by a handful of hoodlums. Nor could there be any question of an Irish Parliament (whose powers are determined by British law) “oppressing” the Protestants.
It is simply a question of the reactionary landlords trying to scare the Liberals.
And the Liberals are losing their nerve, bowing to the reactionaries, making concessions to them, offering to conduct a referendum in Ulster and put off reform for Ulster for six years!
The haggling between the Liberals and the reactionaries continues. Reform can wait: the Irish have waited half a century; they can wait a little longer; you can’t very well “offend” the landlords!
Of course, if the Liberals appealed to the people of Britain, to the proletariat, Carson’s reactionary gangs would melt away immediately and disappear. The peaceful and full achievement of freedom by Ireland would be guaranteed.
But is it conceivable that the liberal bourgeois will turn to the proletariat for aid against the landlords? Why, the Liberals in Britain are also lackeys of the money‑bags, capable only of cringing to the Carsons.
Plea For Socialist Unity in Ireland
Forward, 27th May 1911
All thoughtful men and women who observe the political situations of their countries must realise that Ireland is on the verge of one of the most momentous constitutional changes in her history. Some form of self‑government seems practically certain of realisation, not because of the increased fervour of the national demand, nor yet because, as Tory bigots blatantly assert, of the position of Mr. Redmond, but from the fact that there is no economic class in Ireland today whose interests as a class are bound up with the Union. The Irish landlords who had indeed something to fear from a Home Rule Parliament elected largely by tenant farmers, as would have been the case in the past, have now made their bargain under the various Land Purchase Acts, and, being economically secured, are now politically indifferent. Only the force of religious bigotry remains as an asset to Unionism.
It may be assumed that the 12th of July parade in Belfast this year will be exceptionally large, as every effort will be made, and no money spared, to make an imposing turnout in the hopes of, at the last moment, averting Home Rule, but the parade will be as the last flicker of the dying fire which blazes up before totally expiring. A spell of bad trade in Belfast might have enabled Orange orators to stir up rioting among idle mobs, but the rush of good trade we are at present enjoying destroys any chance of such senseless exhibitions. The Orangemen of today may hate the Pope, but he hates still more to lose time by rioting, when he might make money by working, and in this he shows the “good sense which pre‑eminently distinguishes the city by the Lagan”.
Home Rule, then, is almost a certainty of the future.
What are Irish Socialists doing in these circumstances? Are they exhibiting any Statesmanlike grasp of the situation, or are they still peddling along on sterile street corner theorisings without making any effort to consolidate their forces to seize the greater opportunities that are almost at their doors?
Let me attempt to answer this question.
There are in Ireland today two forms of Socialist organisations – the Independent Labour Party and the Socialist Party of Ireland. The former is strongest in the North, the latter strongest in the South, although it also has an active Branch in Belfast. The question which naturally arises as to whether there is any fundamental difference in policy or tactics between those two parties can be best answered by stating the attitude of the Socialist Party of Ireland (S.P.I.) towards the Irish Branches of the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.). The S.P.I., then, is so convinced of the need of unity among Socialists in Ireland that it is ready at any time to have a joint convention with the I.L.P., and to give to the delegates of such convention the power to debate and agree upon all questions of tactics, policy, and name for a new organisation to embrace all sections of the movement in Ireland. It believes that these questions which divide Socialists are not serious enough to warrant separate organisations in the one country, but can well be debated within one organisation; it maintains that the points upon which we disagree are not nearly so serious as the points upon which we thoroughly agree, and that there are more serious points of divergence between the various sections of the I.L.P. (or of the S.P.I.) than there are between the I.L.P. and the S.P.I., as organisations. What, then, keeps the two organisations divided? Laying aside all questions of personality, personal ambitions, and personal jealousies as being accidental and inessential, it may be truthfully asserted that the one point of divergence is that the I.L.P. in Belfast believes that the Socialist movement in Ireland must per force remain a dues‑paying, organic part of the British Socialist movement, or else forfeit its title to be considered a part of International Socialism, whereas the Socialist Party of Ireland maintains that the relations between Socialism in Ireland and in Great Britain should be based upon comradeship and mutual assistance, and not upon dues paying, should be fraternal and not organic, and should operate by exchange of literature and speakers rather than by attempts to treat as one two peoples of whom one has for 700 years nurtured an unending martyrdom rather than admit the unity or surrender its national identity. The Socialist Party of Ireland considers itself the only International Party in Ireland, since its conception of Internationalism is that of a free federation of free peoples, whereas that of the Belfast branches of the I.L.P. seems scarcely distinguishable from Imperialism, the merging of subjugated peoples in the political system of their conquerors. For the propagation universally of our ideal of a true internationalism there is only required the spread of reason and enlightenment amongst the peoples of the earth, whereas the conception of Internationalism tacitly accepted by our Comrades of the I.L.P. in Belfast required for its spread the flash of the sword of militarism, and the roar of a British 80‑ton gun. We cannot conceive why our Comrades should insist that we are not Internationalists, and that we cannot be, unless we treat the Socialists of Great Britain better than we treat the Socialists of the Continent, or of America, or Australia.
This is a unique conception of Internationalism, unique and peculiar to Belfast. There is no ‘most favoured nation clause’ in Socialist diplomacy, and we, as Socialists in Ireland, can not afford to establish such a precedent.
Observe how this peculiarly Belfast attitude affects the development of Socialism in Ireland.
As everyone acquainted with Ireland knows, Nationalist Ireland contains all the elements of social struggles and worrying political theories. The fight of the landlord against the tenant, and the capitalist against the labourer, and vice versa, has ever waged in Ireland as fiercely as elsewhere. In the Nationalist ranks the democrat and the aristocrat, the revolutionist and the opportunist, all fight their battles, and, though weaker than the others, the Socialist also holds his own and delivers his message.
But in all this warring the advanced sections of Nationalist Ireland have looked in vain for help to the ‘sturdy Protestant democracy of the North.’
At last, however, there arises in Belfast the Independent Labour Party, and hope of assistance springs up in the breasts of the battlers in the South. At last reinforcements are coming, it is thought, Protestant and Catholic working men and women can now unite as they have not done for a century in a common warfare against our common enemy. But slowly the news penetrates to us that Belfast refuses to recognise Ireland; its Labour men are so busy cheering Labour victories in England that it can give no time, nor hope, nor even encourage ment to the men and women who are pioneering in Ireland. Finally, Belfast runs a Labour candidate, who declares publicly that he will vote against Home Rule or National Freedom, and the conviction spreads throughout Ireland that the rise of the I.L.P. in Belfast means nothing for social democracy in Ireland, but is simply the sign of a family quarrel among the Unionists.
Finally, I.L.P. men, delegates to the Irish Trades’ Congress, vote at that gathering against the establishment of a Labour Party in Ireland. And this crime against the rise of a native Labour movement is committed in the name of Internationalism!!!
I have a great admiration for Comrade Walker, of Belfast, and I regretted the manifesto issued against him by the Irish Socialists during his Leith contest, but I am glad that he was defeated in North Belfast. This victory would have killed the hopes of Socialism among Irish Nationalists the world over. Not only in Ireland, but all over the continent of America and Australia, wherever Irishmen live and work, a vote given by Comrade Walker in the House of Commons against Home Rule would have filled the Irish with such an unreasoning and inveterate hatred of the cause that they would be lost to it for a generation. But imagine what our situation would have been in the rest of Ireland if the only Irish Socialist M.P. had voted against Home Rule. The cause in Ireland would have been completely discredited and damned. Nor would his opposition to Home Rule have softened the wrath or averted the hatred of the loyalists. Amongst the loyalists the I.L.P. in Ireland are believed to be Home Rulers, but, as they refuse to organise on an Irish basis, amongst the Home Rulers the I.L.P. are looked upon as Unionists-Labour Unionists, it is true, but still Unionists. And Unionism in Ireland means Toryisrn.
Now what is going to be done! Another Irish Trades’ Congress is at hand, and already I see from the agenda that the same crime is being planned against the idea of a Labour Party in Ireland. The Trades’ Council of Dublin have a motion in favour of the establishment of a Labour Party in Ireland; the Trades’ Council of Belfast have a motion recommending, as the best means of securing Labour representation, that Trades Unions in Ireland be recommended to join the Labour Party (in England). The Dublin motion sets an example which every Trades’ Council in Nationalist Ireland would follow: the Belfast motion would be limited in its following to Belfast. But then the Socialist movement would be saved the danger (?) of the rise of a political Labour movement in Ireland. So would Irish capitalism and clericalism.
Is it too late to appeal to our Belfast Comrades of the I.L.P. to come out of their impossibilist position? Why sacrifice all Ireland for the sake of a part of Belfast? The Socialist Party of Ireland asks them what harm can come from organising on the basis of Irish political life, in view of the fact that in a few years some form of legislative independence is sure to be established in Ireland. Are we to wait until that event occurs, and then rush around trying to do by means of meetings and oratory what should have been prepared for by long and patient organising and upbuilding? If the first elections in Ireland to a Home Rule Parliament finds the forces of Socialism unprepared to enter the field, there will be an awful responsibility at the door of some party, but not at the doors of the Socialist Party of Ireland.
We, I repeat, are willing and anxious to sit down in Convention with our I.L.P. Comrades in order to frame a programme and decide upon a policy and name for a Socialist organisation in Ireland, provided that it be conceded that such organisation be controlled in Ireland, recognise Ireland’s right to self-government, and maintains equal friendly relations with Socialists of all nations, irrespective of the Government under which they live.
Is that too much to ask for?
Ireland, Karl Marx and William
Forward, 10th June 1911
A few days ago, when conversing with an astute observer of things Socialistic in Ireland, I asked him, as he was neither of Belfast nor Dublin, what he thought of my appeal for Socialist Unity in Ireland. He replied, much to my astonishment, that I had mistaken the nature of the real objection certain dominating elements in Belfast felt towards such a course. “You will find,” he said, “that their real objection is not based upon Internationalism, but is based upon Parochialism”.
When reading Comrade Walker’s astounding article, I felt how true the above statement had been. Beginning with the absolutely false statement that I “had utilised the first two paragraphs of my article to attack Belfast and all within its borders” (for the refutation of which statement I refer the reader to the article itself). He next proceeded to overwhelm us with a mass of tawdry rhetoric, cheap and irrelevant schooiboy history, and badly digested political philosophy, all permeated with an artfully instilled appeal to religious prejudice and civic sectionalism carefully calculated to make Belfast wrap itself around in a garment of self-righteousness, and to look with scorn upon its supposed weaker Irish brethren. All this is, of course, in the approved Walker style. But it does not touch the fringe of the question at issue. That question, as readers of Forward will remember, I propounded as follows:
are in Ireland two Socialist parties; there should only be one. The
only real dividing issue, apart from personal elements, is the
question of recognising Ireland as entitled to self-government. Any
Irish Socialist who recognises Ireland’s right to self-government
should logically embody his political activities in a form of
organisation based upon the principle of Irish self-government. I
proposed, therefore, that the two Socialist organisations in Ireland
should each recognise that basis, and then sit down in convention to
frame a programme and policy for such a party suited to the present
and impending political situation of the country. Further, I pointed
out that the trade unions movement in Ireland was considering the
advisability of establishing a Labour Party, and that the same
elements which keep the Belfast I.L.P. from recognising officially
the right of Ireland to self-government had acted and voted last year
in the Irish Trades Congress against a proposition to establish a
Labour Party in Ireland, and were about to do the same this year.
This, I contended, and still contend, was and is a crime against the
International Labour movement – a crime committed in the name of
Internationalism – prostituting the name in the act of invoking
Lord Charlemont: Democrat
Now, how does Comrade Walker meet this friendly appeal for Socialist Unity? First, he declares that I am obsessed with an “antipathy to Belfast and the Black North,” and proceeds to give a long defence of Protestants and glorification of Protestant rebels in Ireland. The first “sturdy Protestant Democrat” is Lord Charlemont, an aristocratic poltroon, who deserted, denounced, and betrayed the Irish Volunteers when they proposed to use their organisation to obtain a Democratic extension of the suffrage and religious toleration. That he should be cited by Comrade Walker as a Democrat proves that there is a kink somewhere, either in Walker’s conception of Democracy, or in his knowledge of Irish history.
But friend William blunders on from absurdity to absurdity. Remember that he is opposed to self-government to Ireland and then admire his colossal nerve in citing the glorious example of “sturdy Protestant Democrats,” who gave their whole lives in battling, suffering, and sacrifice for the cause of National Freedom, which Comrade Walker rejects. He cites Theobald Wolfe Tone. Wolfe Tone recognised that National Independence was an essential element of Democracy, and declared that “to break this connection with England, the abiding cause of all our woes,” was his object. He cited Fintan Lalor. Lalor declared that the Irish people should fight for “full and absolute independence for this island, and for every man in it”. Lalor was not a Protestant; but our Comrade also cites Lalor’s contemporary, Mitchell, whom he wrongly declares a Presbyterian. He was instead a Unitarian. Mitchell summed up his political ideal in these words:
“We want Ireland, not for the peers nor for the nominees of peers in College Green, but Ireland for the Irish people – an Irish Republic, one and indivisible”.
Walker also cites Joseph Gillies Biggar, a sturdy and uncompromising
Home Ruler. In fact, practically all the “sturdy Protestant
Democrats” he cites are men who would have treated with
contempt Walker’s pitiful straddle in Irish politics. They are all
men to whom he would have been opposed were he living in their time.
He minds us of this section by quoting, among the names of Irish
‘rebels,’Grattan, Butt, and Shaw, a quotation that must
have brought a grin to the face of anyone who read it, and had even a
rudimentary knowledge of Irish history.
The History of Black Ulster
In passing, let me remark that the names cited by Comrade Walker but confirm my point. We do not care so much what a few men did, as what did the vast mass of their co‑religionists do. The vast mass of the Protestants of Ulster, except during the period of 1798, were bitter enemies of the men he has named, and during the bitter struggle of the Land League, when the peasantry in the other provinces were engaged in a life and death struggle against landlordism, the sturdy Protestant Democracy of the North was electing landlords, and the nominees of landlords, to every Protestant constituency in Ulster. When Comrade Walker is doing propaganda work in Belfast he does not fail to remind his hearers of their remissness in such matters. Why, then, does he mount another horse in his letter to Forward?
All these men will live in history because they threw in their lot with the other provinces in a common struggle for political freedom. In the exact measure that we admire and applaud them must we condemn and deplore the sectional and parochial action of Comrade Walker.
But, he says in his peroration, “My place of birth was accidental, but my duty to my class is world‑wide”. Fine, man! Grand!! On a platform, delivered in your best style, it would sound heroic; in cold print, it smells of clap‑trap. If the place of your birth was accidental, was not the fact of your birth in the working class an accident also? You might have been born in Buckingham Palace a prince of the blood royal, or even a princess, for all you had to do with it. I do not care where you were born – (we have had Jews, Russians, Germans, Lithuanians, Scotsmen, and Englishmen in the S.P.I.) – but I do care where you are earning your living, and I hold that every class-conscious worker should work for the freedom of the country in which he lives, if he desires to hasten the political power of his class in that country.
Our Comrade says, in his genial style, that these are “reactionary doctrines alien to any brand of Socialism” he ever heard of. He must be singularly ignorant of classical Socialist literature. Karl Marx was not much of a reactionist, and he knew a thing or two about Socialism. Let me then quote, for Comrade Walker, the opinion of Karl Marx on Socialism and Ireland.
Karl Marx on Socialism and Ireland
I quote from a letter sent to his friend, Kugelman, on 29th November, 1869, from Toulon, and re‑printed in the Neue Zeit of 1902. Read:
“I have more and more arrived at the conviction – though this conviction has not entered the mind of the English working class – that we shall never be able to do in England anything decisive if we do not resolutely separate its policy in all that concerns Ireland from the policy of the dominant classes, so that not only will she be able to make common cause with the Irish, but will even be able to take the initiative in dissolving the Union founded in 1801, and replacing it by an independent Federative bond, and this aim should be followed not as a matter of sympathy with Ireland, but as a necessity based on the interest of the English proletariat... Each of the movements in England remains paralysed by the struggle with the Irish who even in England form a considerable proportion of the working class... And it is not only the social evolution established in England which is retarded by these relations with Ireland, but also its external policy, notably with Russia and the United States”.
Written in 1869, Comrade Walker, but reads like a statement of what is happening today.
At every International Socialist Congress a separate vote and recognition is given to such subject nations as Finland, Poland, and the various nationalities within the Russian Empire; at Stuttgart a reception and message of sympathy was given to a delegate from India, speaking not on behalf of the Indian workers, but primarily on behalf of Indian Nationalism; and at the Paris Congress of 1900, the delegates from the Irish Socialist Party were seated, and given the same votes as the delegates of independent nationalities, such as Germany or England. At Stuttgart, Comrade Bebel declared that one consequence of the growth of Socialism would be a renascence of national culture and sympathies in countries now politically suppressed, and he welcomed such a renascence on the ground that the civilisation of the future would be all the richer from the presence of so many distinctive forms of intellectual growth arising from different racial and national developments.
in brief, is the real position of International Socialism towards
subject nations. It is a concept based upon the belief that
civilisation needs free nations just as the nations need free
individual citizens, that the internationalism of the future will be
based upon the free federation of free peoples, and cannot be
realised through the sub jugation of the smaller by the larger
political unit. But Comrade Walker says these are words, and mean
that the S.P.I. desires the Irish to divorce themselves from all
Trade Unions, Friendly Societies, and Co‑operative Societies across
the water. Not necessarily. If we look at the two nations across the
Atlantic, we can see that every Trade Union and Friendly Society
which does business in the United States also does business in Canada
and vice versa, yet the two nations are independent politically of
each other. Why can England and Ireland not be as industrially
intermingled, and yet politically separate?
Walker and the King
Our Comrade is sore over my attitude towards his election campaign in North Belfast. But he should have reminded the readers of Forward of his attitude in that campaign. He should have told them that he pledged himself to oppose Home Rule and religious equality. That he pledged himself to oppose any alteration in the Coronation Oath – that oath which the King of England recently objected to take because of its stupid reactionary intolerance. The oath was too much even for a royal stomach, but Comrade Walker pledged himself to maintain it. He should have reminded his readers that in the 17th and 18th centuries the ferocious bigotry of the governing class placed upon the Statute Book of Ireland laws against Roman Catholics so atrocious that they are regarded by modern sentiment as the very incarnation of sectarian malevolence, and that he promised to maintain them in his answer to the following question:
“Will you resist every attack upon the legislative enactments provided by our forefathers as necessary safeguards against the political encroachments of the papacy?”
Answer by W. Walker – “Yes”.
We progress as we get away from the bigotry of our forefathers, but Comrade Walker was willing to make their bigotry our standard of legislation.
In a country overwhelmingly of our religious faith, he pledged himself to oppose the entry of members of that faith into certain political and legal offices; he pledged himself to “make an effort to obtain a redistribution of Parliamentary seats for the purpose of diminishing the extravagant representation of Ireland by means of which the Roman Catholics and disloyal party has hindered the business of the House of Commons,” and he declared that “Protestantism means protesting against superstition; hence true Protestantism is synonymous with Labour,” thus leaving it to be inferred that if a Catholic embraced the cause of Labour, he also embraced the Protestant religion.
Well, Comrade Walker may feel scandalised at my statement that I am glad of his defeat, but I refuse to endorse the idea that because a man styles himself “Independent Labour” or even “Socialist,” he has a right to be a renegade to every other principle of progress. When he has purged himself of such reactionary ideas, as other men have done since the same election, I will gladly support him in his contest for a Parliamentary seat in an Irish House of Commons.
Finally, the fact remains, and we may yet have to appeal to the tribunal of the International Labour movement on the question, that Comrade William Walker, a member of the Executive of the Labour Party is vehemently opposing the formation of a Labour Party in Ireland. We may have to ask the aforesaid tribunal whether Comrade Walker, in such action, has the support of his Executive, or is speaking with their mandate in thus doing the work of the enemy joining with the bigoted Orangeman, and the equally bigoted follower of Mr. Redmond to stifle the aspirations of the more militant section of the Irish Working Class for a party of its own, to fight its battles against the common enemy.
I, for one, do not believe that any one of the men whose genius have made the Socialist movement what it is, would hail the uprise of a Labour Party in Ireland, and the consolidation of our Socialist forces, with anything save joy and satisfaction.
A year after the closing of the Second Congress of the Third International the climate of optimism which had prevailed at that time had already somewhat abated. The international situation gave no prospect of an imminent revolutionary victory in other European countries. The counter-revolution had got the better of the Hungarian Soviet Republic. The attempt to export revolution “at the point of a bayonet” had been blocked at the gates of Warsaw. Finally, more than anything else, what would become known as the German “March Action” has suffered a heavy defeat and had caused, along with violent anti‑worker repression, extreme tension and splits within the VKPD (United Communist Party of Germany) and an awkward situation for the leaders of the International.
Zinoviev, in the circular announcing that the opening of the Third Congress of the International would be two months earlier than anticipated, didn’t fail to mention that “the rhythm of the proletarian international revolution, due to a whole series of circumstances, is slowing down somewhat”. Trotsky in his speech presenting “The Theses on the World Situation and the Tasks of the Comintern Adopted by the Third Comintern Congress”, stated that “The revolution is not so obedient, so tame, that it can be led on a leash, as we imagined. It has its ups and downs, its crises and booms […] Now we can see that we are not so near to the objective of conquering power, to the world revolution. We believed, in 1919, that it was only a matter of months but now we say it could take years”.
If it is true that in the years 1919 and 1920 the development of the revolutionary movement in Europe stopped the international bourgeoisie from burying the Soviet State, it is also true that it didn’t manage to take power in any country. This situation created a certain equilibrium in the class forces, which had been fighting one another in an open, armed struggle to achieve predominance.
“A state of equilibrium, which although highly unstable and precarious, enables the Socialist Republic to exist – not for long, of course – within the capitalist encirclement (Theses for a Report on the Tactics of the RCP). In order to resist one had to allow “the development of capitalism, controlled and regulated by the proletarian State”: State capitalism which, contained within certain limits, wouldn’t have been incompatible with the communist dictatorship. The NEP arose out of this state of necessity, consolidating the alliance with the peasants in order to win time. And as Lenin expressed it: “to win time means to win everything, especially during a period of equilibrium in which our foreign comrades are seriously preparing for revolution”.
This, in a nutshell, was the situation when the Third Congress of the International met: Russia wouldn’t be able to hold out for much longer.
It was therefore extremely important that the communist parties in the industrialized countries didn’t make mistakes that would preclude them from leading the proletarian masses when transported onto the terrain of revolutionary struggle.
The watchword of the Third Congress was the “united front” to “conquer the majority of the working class”. The aim of Lenin’s vehement attack against the “theory of the offensive” was to combat those positions which prevented the communist parties from going “to the masses” due to their sectarian exclusivity, which by alienating the proletarian class from the communist leadership would effectively deliver them into the hands of social-democratic legalitarianism.
The Italian Left had no doubts about either the “united front from below” or “the conquest of the majority of the working class”; ascribing to the word “majority” the same significance as Lenin, to indicate not a numerical majority but a decisive influence of the Communist Party over the working class a whole.
Where we diverged was around how to achieve this influence over the class. Lenin gave as an example the “open letter” with which, in January 1921, the German Communist Party had invited the Social Democratic Party to take part in joint actions to achieve some immediate objectives, such as the defence of workers’ living standards, arming of the proletariat, release of proletarian political prisoners, and the resumption of trade relations with Soviet Russia.
Lenin defended the tactics outlined in the “Open Letter” to the point of making it binding on all parties: it would push the social democrats into a corner, he argued, forcing them into agreements and commitments which, if kept up, would mean the communist approach would be bound to appear in a more favourable light than theirs, and if rejected or betrayed, would confirm the counter-revolutionary nature of the opportunist parties and union leaders.
The Italian Left, on the other hand, rejected the idea that an alliance between the communist parties and the so‑called “proletarian” parties could advance the revolutionary preparation of the labouring masses. It believed instead that actual place where the unification of the proletariat and its enrolment within the militia and activity of the party occurred was in the trade unions, where the general and mass organization of the proletariat takes place. The other expedients, of the political alliance type, would not only not draw the masses closer to the party, but would undermine the party’s programmatic, tactical and organizational structure.
The Third Congress would be characterized by its polemics against the “Lefts”, above all against the leadership of the German Communist Party, which had tried to justify the errors of the “March Action” with the “theory of the offensive”, Lenin’s critique of which the Italian Left agreed with.
But the Italian Left, which was also in Moscow, considered it important to warn that the concentric attack of the International’s leaders against the “radical tendencies” in the communist parties risked neglecting the much more serious danger of “centrism and semi‑centrism”, something that Lenin would subsequently admit.
The amendments proposed by the German, Austrian and Italian delegations to the “Theses on Tactics”, drafted by the Russian delegation, had highlighted precisely this danger and the treacherous role that centrism had performed in the “March Action” in Germany.
In his speech given at the 11th session on 1st July, during the debate on the Theses on Tactics, Terracini, in his capacity as delegate of the left current then at the head of the PCd’I, summed up these warnings very well.
Lenin’s speech followed immediately afterwards: “Comrades! I deeply regret that I must confine myself to self‑defence”.
The Italian delegation, during the 14th session, whilst declaring that it would vote in favour of the theses proposed by the Executive of the International, wanted also to make clear that the Communist Party of Italy had always fought against putschism and had never had anything to do with the anarchists and the revolutionary syndicalists (something Serrati had accused the Italian party of) and it pointed out to Lenin himself that, certainly unwittingly, by backing this misapprehension, the opportunist and centrist tendencies would be handed a weapon that could be used against the Communist Party and against the International.
Third (Communist) International
11th Session, 1st July 1921
Discourse by Terracini Delegate of the Communist Party of Italy in relation to the discussion on the theses on tactics presented by Radek
(From the German Protocol, being compared with some parts evidently taken from the “Bulletin of the Third Congress”)
Delegates have already read this morning in Moscow the amendments that the German delegation, together with those of Austria and Italy, wish to propose to the congress delegates. We have now been informed by the Communist Youth that they wish to join with the Italian, German, and Austrian delegates in expressing their opinion on our proposal.
Let me say right from the start that we do not wish to alter the theses that Comrade Radek proposed yesterday at the close of his report – at least, not as regards their fundamental principle. In our opinion, Comrade Radek’s theses are actually linked to the theses and report by Comrade Trotsky on the world situation. When Comrade Trotsky spoke on this topic, he also noted that Comrade Radek had protested that Trotsky had deviated from the question under discussion and taken up aspects of the Theses on Tactics and Strategy. In his summary, Comrade Trotsky said he was pulling back somewhat in order to leave the entire topic of these theses to Comrade Radek. This incident shows that there is in fact a relationship between the reports of Comrade Radek and Comrade Trotsky, and that you can move from one report to the other without presenting new principles and adding new explanations.
All delegates, including those from Germany, Austria, Italy and the Communist Youth, have given general approval to the theses proposed by Comrade Trotsky. That signifies that they have also declared their agreement with the theses of Comrade Radek. They would be contradicting themselves if, having approved Comrade Trotsky’s theses, they were now to reject those of Comrade Radek.
In our view, the theses of Comrade Radek can serve only as a foundation for the debate, unless they are first modified by fundamental amendments. You read the amendments today in Moscow. Comrades, they fill almost a full page. All these amendments rest on general principles that I will now propose. Each individual amendment will then be explained and clarified by other comrades, who – like me – can convey news on the situation in specific countries and on specific conditions that bear on the theses.
One of the sections in Comrade Radek’s theses deals with the situation in each country and the developments in different parties. These theses on the current situation should give us the key to the tactics that must be carried out by each party and country. The expression, ‘events in individual parties’ must therefore be altered, in our opinion. Take the situation in Italy, for example. What is said here on Italy does not correspond to the true situation in the Socialist Party and among the proletarian masses of the country. These assertions can easily give our enemies a weapon to use against us.
In point 4, we read: The politics of the Serrati current, while strengthening the influence of the reformists, also strengthened that of the anarchists and syndicalists, in which the masses sought to find leaders for the struggle against capitalism. They also generated anti-parliamentary verbal‑radical tendencies within the party itself.
The claim that the Italian masses sought leadership for the struggle against capitalism among the anarchists and syndicalists does not, in our opinion, correspond to reality. The anarchists and syndicalists in Italy have never had an organization. It is not true that the proletarian masses turned to the anarchists and syndicalists to find other leaders of the anticapitalist struggle, after the Socialist Party had shown itself to be weak. Many opponents of communism and the Communist Party in Italy did in fact claim that the masses sought leaders among the syndicalists and anarchists after the Third International appraised the Socialist Party in disparaging terms. From what I hear, Comrade Zetkin told the VKPD Central Committee that the Communist Party of Italy is largely composed of syndicalists and contains many anarchists. Serrati, too, has asserted more than once in the columns of Avanti and in his speeches that those who split from the Socialists in Livorno were merely anarchists and syndicalists. He tried to arouse the belief that the Third International’s organization in Italy, like all its parties in other countries, was nothing other than an organization of anarchists who had previously belonged to the Socialist Party and had now left it. Therefore, he said, the Socialist Party did not want to tolerate any anarchists or syndicalists in its ranks in the future.
The proletarian masses will have to make the choice between the anarchists, on the one hand, and the reformists and centrists on the other. The reformists today represent a rather large organized force. We are convinced that the proletarian masses will follow the Communist Party. In Italy, too, after the period of confusion following the Livorno Congress, these masses sought a new focus for organization and found it in the Communist Party of Italy. We therefore propose that the sentence regarding the masses’ efforts to find new leaders among the anarchists and syndicalists be amended as follows:
In moments of confrontational action, the centrist attitude of these leaders resulted in a situation where the Communist parties either failed to take the lead of the mass actions with sufficient energy or where centrist or half‑centrist elements attacked them from the rear.
There is no doubt that this danger is now behind us, and that there is now in Italy a genuine Communist Party that leads the masses in struggle against capitalism and the bourgeoisie.
We must raise a principled question: that of the radical current within the Communist Party. There has already been a sharp struggle against the radical tendency in debates within the Executive and here at this congress. When we in the Executive discussed the question of the Communist Party of France, the delegate of the Communist Youth of France attempted to demonstrate how strong opportunism is, even today, in the Communist Party of France. He cited examples and cases where the Communist Party of France, in his opinion, had not taken a truly revolutionary position. On this occasion, many comrades heatedly attacked the delegate of the Communist Youth of France. We certainly do not hold that the proposals of the French comrade must be adopted here. It is not our view that the Communist Party of France should have carried out the revolution and resisted the French army’s invasion of Luxembourg with arms in hand. We do not believe that, when the class of 1919 was conscripted, the French Communist Party should have issued the order not to respond to the call, or that, when the guards came to fetch the young French comrades, they should have resisted with arms in hand. However, we do not believe that every radical tendency must be rejected in such a ruthless fashion. In our opinion, the statements in Comrade Radek’s theses about radical tendencies in the French party and in other countries are too strong. (Interjection) No, they are too strong, not too weak.
The Third International still has a major struggle to fight today, a struggle against the rightist tendencies, against the centrists, half‑centrists, and opportunists. We expelled Levi from the Third International and the VKPD and refused to admit Serrati into the Third International. But we cannot yet conclude that the Third International is now free from all centrist tendencies and from the threat of opportunist tendencies. The full challenge of the struggle against centrist and opportunist tendencies lies before us now. Strong centrist tendencies, which still exist in the Third International and many of its member parties, must be combated energetically.
On the other hand, the proposals that we adopted yesterday in the Executive, the proposal regarding the Executive’s conduct, speak of certain parties affiliated to the Third International that still display centrist tendencies. We explained that these tendencies must be wiped out.
We spoke of certain parties that joined the Third International because the masses wanted it, even though this was against or almost against the will of their leaders. These leaders belong to the Third International today only because the masses wanted to join it. The possibility now exists that these leaders, who entered the Third International only because the masses wanted them to, will now try to switch over once again to centrist or reformist policies. The Executive must keep a close eye on these party leaders and take care that no new Serrati or new Levi crops up, who would represent a danger not only for the revolutionary movement in their country but for the Third International as a whole.
We therefore consider that it is not the struggle against radical tendencies, but rather above all the struggle against the rightists that must be taken up – especially in the paragraphs dealing with the situation in the Communist Party of France. Specifically, all the references in these paragraphs that crudely target the tendencies referred to here as ‘impatient and politically inexperienced forces’. Instead of that, we should add advice to the radical forces. We can advise the Central Committee of the French party to work to prevent the radical forces, in the words of Comrade Lenin in the Executive, from ‘committing stupidities’. However, it must be emphasized that the Executive of the French party must direct its attention and its work above all toward the right tendency.
In his report on the Executive, Comrade Zinoviev spoke quite fully against the right tendencies. If we now adopt the amendment to the Theses on Tactics and Strategy, we will only be reaffirming the statements of Comrade Zinoviev. We do not expect Comrade Radek to raise any objections to our amendment. When the Executive discussed the question of the French party, Comrade Radek spoke not against the radical tendency but against the rightists. Our amendment’s aim at nothing more than to stress in the Theses on Tactics and Strategy the same points that Comrade Radek has already made in the Executive with regard to the P.C.F.
When we come to the situation in Czechoslovakia, we encounter a second principled question, which is mentioned quite often, in a general sense, in Comrade Radek’s theses. However, I would like to speak specifically about the situation in Czechoslovakia.
The question here is how large mass parties should be organized. In his theses, Comrade Radek seems very concerned to prevent the Communist parties in different countries from devoting themselves to any task other than the organization of larger and larger masses of proletarians and workers. So we read, for example, in point 1: ‘it’s a matter of the tactics and strategy to be applied in our struggles. ’... Well, in our opinion, the words regarding the need to win a majority of the working class to Communist principles can lead to misunderstandings in the parties and the other workers’ organizations.
Yes, we must strive to organize the majority of the proletariat in the Communist Party, we must make efforts to bring ever broader proletarian masses to the organizations of the Communist Party. As for the words, ‘winning the masses’, all we can say is that we must strive to win the sympathy of the vast majority of the proletariat for revolutionary struggle. Comrade Radek’s theses contain the notion that we must win the majority of the proletariat for communism.
In point 4 – page 9 in the French version of the theses – we read that in Czechoslovakia there is already a party with 350,000 organized members, plus another 60,000 in the German party in that country. As a result, when the two parties fuse, there will be a total membership of 400,000. It follows from this that the Czechoslovak party faces the task of attracting and educating the majority of the working class of this country through a truly communist agitation. In our opinion, the Communist Party of a country as small as Czechoslovakia, a party that already counts more than 400,000 members, faces yet other tasks, namely those of winning the remaining workers who are still outside the party. You cannot halt propaganda work; you cannot close the gates of the Communist Party to the workers who wish to join it. That lies beyond any doubt. But there is still another task, namely the communist training of the 400,000 workers who are already organized in the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. The workers that heretofore stood under the influence of reformist and democratic leaders, who always instructed them in a reformist and opportunist spirit, must now be educated as Communists. The statement that the Czechoslovak party has the task of winning even broader working masses, and moreover not merely through propaganda, thus signifies that the Communist Party must also be expanded through action. We now wish to explain what we can expect from revolutionary struggle and what it will look like. It must truly be a struggle of the entire proletariat, or almost all of it. In our opinion we must not postpone revolutionary action until the majority of the proletariat is organized and acknowledges the principles of communism. We have heard often enough that the Russian Revolution was carried out and triumphed while the Communist Party of Russia was still a small and relatively unimportant organization. So, when it is said that the majority of the proletariat must be organized in the party, that can only mean that the majority of the proletariat must be involved in the revolutionary struggle.
When I read the theses of Comrade Radek, I had the impression that he was saying that the majority of the proletariat must be organized before the revolutionary struggle begins. We do not share this point of view.
On the contrary, we believe that the working class cannot be won over otherwise than through action by the party. The workers who now belong to the democratic and reformist parties are more likely to be convinced by action than by our propaganda that the principles of communism are correct. Only then will they quit the reformist parties. In my opinion, a Communist Party will always consist of only the most active workers, until it launches itself in struggle – and, what is more, until it has almost triumphed.
The workers who now belong to the majority and reformist parties and are won by our propaganda will not join the Communist Party but will remain outside, forming a party of those without affiliation. That happened in Russia, where the unaffiliated workers are only now, after three years of revolutionary struggle, joining up with communism – indeed, without for the moment having any clear conception of what it is.
The theses should therefore not assert that the main task of the Communist Party consists of winning the majority of the proletariat for the principles of communism. It would be much more correct to say that the majority of the proletariat must be drawn into the revolutionary struggle. We must not, however, propose the notion that the majority of the proletariat must be organized in the Communist Party. That statement would give the reformists a sharp weapon to use against us. The reformists have always claimed that the revolutionary struggle must not begin until the majority of the proletariat is organized in the Communist Party. What we have here is a democratic principle that people want to use against the Communist Party. However, this is suitable only for the reformists and not for the theses proposed for the Third International.
We find this assertion again in the passage that takes up the tasks of the German party and the position of the KPD with regard to the Third International (page 9). There we read: “The VKPD was formed from the fusion of the “Spartacists” with the working masses of the left‑wing Independents. Although already a mass party, it faces the major task of increasing and strengthening its influence on the broad masses; winning the proletarian mass organizations, the trade unions; and breaking the hold of the Social Democratic Party and trade‑union bureaucracy. From this it follows that the VKPD also has the task of strengthening its influence on the broad masses. In our opinion, however, a party like the one in Germany, which has a large number of members, has another much more important task, namely that of placing itself at the head of the masses in the coming struggles of the German proletariat. We can be sure that the revolutionary movement in Germany is not yet over. On the contrary, the future struggles of the German proletariat will be more significant and more bitter precisely because the German proletariat was defeated in the March Action.
I was in Germany when the struggle broke out. I stayed there for several days and then returned to Italy. I must say that I saw how the influence and popularity of the German party in Italy was significantly greater after the
March Action, when there was no longer any hope of victory, than it was before. The Italian comrades and the workers with whom I spoke asked question after question about the struggle of the German proletariat. There is no way that I can portray to you how great was the sympathy of Italian workers for the German party, which had the courage to take up the struggle to defend the German proletariat under the most difficult conditions imaginable. The Italian workers displayed greater sympathy for the KPD after the March Action in Germany than before. They demonstrated greater admiration, greater trust in the party than there was in Germany itself. In Germany there now exists a true mass party. Before, the Italian workers could not be convinced of that. Comrade Trotsky shakes his head. It appears that he does not quite believe what I am saying. (Trotsky: I am not just referring to what you are saying right now.) I thought as much. However, I can definitely say that my statement reflects the true feelings of the Italian proletariat.
Moreover, the March movement in Germany was useful to the VKPD in many regards. It contributed to tearing the mask from the face of numerous opportunists. The German party learned in the March struggle how discipline is expressed in action. We have always spoken of discipline, but we never had the opportunity to apply it. During the March struggles, however, the German comrades learned to apply discipline. They have now achieved a competence in struggle that was lacking before the March Action, and which we ourselves still lack to this day.
Comrade Radek and others spoke sarcastically about the theory of the offensive. It is true that this is a poor choice of words. It is adopted from military language. It seems that Comrade Radek has read quite a bit regarding military tactics, such that he now feels able to speak sarcastically of the policy of an offensive that found its theoreticians in Germany after the March Action. Nonetheless, the words ‘theory of the offensive’ have a certain meaning, which we must clearly understand. We are convinced that this will be of significant benefit for the revolutionary struggle. We should not reject this theory; rather we must try to understand its meaning.
When comrades talk of the theory of the offensive, they mean a tendency toward expanding the activity of the Communist Party. The term aims to stress that a dynamic tendency will now replace the static one that has until now struck deep roots in almost all Communist parties of the Third International. The formula ‘theory of the offensive’ signifies the transition from a period of inactivity to a period of action. In our opinion, the theory of the offensive can be accepted only in this sense and this spirit. If we interpret it in the fashion that I have laid out, then the Theses on Tactics and Strategy must not reject, out of hand, the statements of comrades who speak of the theory of the offensive; rather we must correct the exaggerations in their statements.
The main principled changes that we are proposing to congress delegates are these: first, we must not deal with the Left too sharply while abandoning the field to the rightists in the Communist parties and the Third International. On the contrary, in our view the Right must be combated, for it represents a much greater danger for communism. The Left, on the other hand, will only pose a danger to the party when the party fully develops its activity. Also, it must be stressed that it is not absolutely necessary that the Communist Party is already organized and has won the majority of the working masses. What is important is merely the capacity of the Communist parties, at the moment of struggle, to draw the masses with them.
As I said earlier, other comrades will take up additional questions raised by the theses. For my part, I am limiting myself to the two questions that I have just discussed.
Third (Communist) International
Statement by the Italian Delegation
(From the German Protocol, pp. 669‑670)
The Italian delegation declares that the amendments it is supporting should be understood only with the meaning intended by their movers and certainly not in the manner indicated by Comrade Lenin in his speech.
The Communist Party of Italy has never supported a putschist theory and has no intention of supporting one now. The best proof of this is the struggle that the party carries out on a daily basis against the anarchists and syndicalists.
Contrary to Comrade Lenin’s apparent interpretation, the Italian delegation does not oppose organizing the proletarian masses on a constantly widening basis. This is assured simply by the broad recruitment work carried out by the Communist Party of Italy among the working masses.
The Italian delegation does not deny the need to lead the workers in struggles or limited actions. And, indeed, the Communist Party of Italy does lead them in all their movements and risings.
In his interpretation of the proposed amendments, Comrade Lenin ruthlessly struggles against the nightmare of putschism, which – where it exists – is truly dangerous. But this danger is not present in the Communist Party of Italy. Comrade Lenin is thus, without wanting to, providing the opportunist and centrist tendencies, with which we have been engaged in prolonged struggle, with a weapon and a means of struggle against us.
The Italian delegation explained at the beginning of the debate, on behalf of the others proposing the amendments to Comrade Radek’s theses, that the delegation would vote for the theses and accept them in their broad outline before sending them back to the commission.
text here published demonstrate the incompatibility of any kind of
common ground between verbally revolutionary maximalism and
communism. It was not actually three currents (reformism, maximalism,
and communism) that confronted one another at Leghorn, as some would
have us believe. The clash was between the social democratic current,
led by Turati, and the communist fraction based on the Marxist
program and the programmatic theses of the Third International.
As social democracy performs the function of the long arm of the bourgeoisie within the working class, so maximalism, revolutionary only in word, was none other than a social democratic instrument whose purpose, as Turati was honest enough to admit, was to penetrate inside the Moscow International to weaken the program and soften its revolutionary objectives to the point of atrophy.
As usual, the proof of this lies in the facts; reformists and maximalists were unanimous in aiming their guns at the common enemy: revolutionary communism.
The tactics of the Communist International were published in Ordine Nuovo on 12 and 31 January 1922, between the meeting of the Executive of the C.I. in December 1921 and the Congress of Rome in March 1922. This text outlined the positions of the Italian section of the International on all the complex international tactical questions facing the proletariat, including the correct position of the Left regarding the tactic of the united front. It helps once again to recall how the Communist Party of Italy (PCd’I) was the first communist party to advocate the tactic of the united front, by virtue of which it significantly extended its influence at the heart of the Italian proletariat.
The theses on the united front approved by the Executive Committee of the CI (ECCI) communicated a worrying shift in the tactics of the International, in effect challenging the position taken up to then in relation to the social democrats, and even to parliamentary democracy; hence the PCd’I’s preoccupation with alerting the global communist movement to the dangers that lay ahead. Indeed, the Rome Theses were the Italian section’s contribution to solving the far from easy question of tactics.
Nevertheless, the party strenuously defended the international’s tactic in the face of socialist vilification, ready now to smear, now to exult at its involvement in the politics of the Comintern. But while in the natural setting of the national and international congresses it continued to reconfirm its exemplary discipline towards the directives emanating from Moscow, it simultaneously expounded with dialectical clarity the dangers which, given the objective exhaustion of revolutionary fervor, threatened to undo the marvelous historical work accomplished in the historical battles of the global proletariat during these years.
Unfortunately the alarm sounded by the Left proved valid: from the exception made for the entry of the English communist party into the Labour Party, to mergers with other parties or wings of parties becoming the norm, through to the scandalous dissolution of the Chinese Communist Party in the bourgeois-democratic Kuomintang; from the parliamentary support, also considered an exception, for a social democratic ministry, such as that of Branting’s in Sweden, to the formation of a dubious “government of workers and peasants” in Germany together with professional traitors of the revolutionary proletariat, and finally to the support given to openly bourgeois governments.
The tactics of the Communist International
A lively interest is manifesting itself in many quarters in the tactical direction that the international communist movement is assuming in the current phase of the world crisis, and it is no bad thing to clarify this question both to reassure comrades who seem to be preoccupied with the symptoms of a supposedly “new” stance taken by the International, and to refute, and this is very easy, adversaries who are attempting to speculate on a revision of methods which reconciles the methods of the communists with those, harshly stigmatized and fought against, of opportunists of every type. Let us therefore present on the one hand the current status of the question as expounded in the debates and in international preparation, together with the true meaning of the tactical proposals which have been articulated, and on the other hand our party’s point of view on the subject.
It will be useful to state in advance that the decision on the issue is, from the international perspective, currently under review and discussion, and that any decision is reserved for the meeting of the enlarged Executive Committee, which will take place in Moscow on February 12, and that the opinions of the central committee of our party can be deduced from the text of the theses on tactics adopted by it, which contain the elements of an organic contribution to the solution of the current tactical issue. It cannot be ruled out that the point of view of the Italian party may be different from that of other communist parties, but this does not mean to say that the aforementioned idiocies of the opportunists cannot and should not be rebutted, by showing how their ignorance and lack of sincerity appears even more ridiculous when applied in a risible display of artificial puritanism, or when they misinterpret the results of the magnificent, superior experience of the communist movement as renewed respect for the nonsense they have been rambling on about for so long, all of it characteristic of their incapacity and impotence, and of their sorry profession as publicity agents for the slanders contrived in counter-revolutionary circles.
The Third Congress of the Communist International has not pronounced on the tactical issue of the proposals for the proletarian “united front” by the communist parties based on the platform of immediate and contingent demands. The Congress’s internal discussion on tactics was characterized from a rather negative perspective: the critique of the March Action in Germany and of the so‑called tactic of the offensive. Based on its judgment of this action and its result the Congress came to a series of conclusions concerning the relationships between the communist party and the proletarian masses, which in their guiding spirit are the common patrimony of all Marxist communists, when applied in a healthy and faithful manner. “To the masses” is the watchword of the Third Congress, and it signifies a rebuttal of all the insinuations of the opportunists; since the magnificently realistic point of view of the Third International has nothing in common with a revolutionary sleight of hand that would entrust the transformation of society to the voluntaristic and romantic mission by an elect legion of trailblazers and martyrs. The Communist Party will become the General Staff of the revolution when it knows how to gather around itself the proletarian army, driven by the real developments of the situation into a general struggle against the present regime. The Communist Party must have the largest part of the proletariat behind it.
Entrust these ideas to elements who do not possess the profound critical dialectics and true application of Marxism – elements who may also be in the ranks of the Communist International, but who are certainly not among its leaders even if some stupidly accuse them of being right‑wing – and you will see how erroneous conclusions are drawn, which truly deserve to be spoken of as steps to the right, or as retreats into outmoded attitudes. It is necessary to have the masses and it is necessary to have the Communist Party, resolute and adapted to the revolutionary struggle, free from social-democratic and centrist degeneration: these two conditions are perhaps, or indeed certainly, difficult to achieve because it is tremendously difficult to resolve the problems from which the transformation of the world will arise, but they are not two mutually exclusive conditions, so it would be sheer folly to make a simple democratic interpretation of Lenin’s expression “we must have the majority of the proletariat”, an interpretation that would shift the bases of the Communist Party and alter its character and function, because only is it thus possible to include the majority of the masses.
The undeniably Marxist content of the International’s thinking is precisely the opposite, that the conquest of the masses and the formation of authentically communist parties are the two conditions which, far from being mutually exclusive, combine perfectly, so that by developing its tactics towards organizing large proletarian strata the Communist International does not renounce, but rationally develops and employs its own work towards breaking the proletarian political movement away from traitors and incompetents.
A further fundamental concept brought to light by the Third Congress also refers to the most authentic sources of our Marxist thinking and our revolutionary experience, and it can only be regarded as a novelty by those who understand revolutionism in the sense that there is only one certain means to protect oneself from venereal diseases, which is masturbation, and in order to protect the species’ reproductive organs one must renounce their function and reason for existence. We would say instead that the revolutionary party must participate in the movements of working-class groups in pursuit of their temporary interests. The task of the party is to synthesize these initial impulses with the general and supreme action for revolutionary victory: this is achieved not by despising and childishly denying these initial stimuli towards action, but by supporting and developing them in the logical reality of their process, harmonizing them in their confluence with general revolutionary action. It is in these problems that the dialectical content of our method shines forth; it resolves the apparent contradictions of the successive phases of a process as it comes to fruition, and, in discerning in its life and in its dynamics the historical course of the revolution, it has no fear of declaring that while tomorrow will negate today, it does not cease to be its progeny; which means more than simply being its successor. The dangers of such work are obvious: communists are unanimous in considering that in order to overcome them it was necessary to constitute genuine revolutionary parties free from every opportunist vice. The formula with which the Communist International will crush reformism goes far beyond a dignified refusal to place its feet on the territory trodden by reformism. “Do you have this recipe?” the amusing champions of the “intransigent” left of the Italian reformist party seem to be asking. We may well reply that we are developing it, having discovered the first and most important ingredient: the liquidation of centrist and Serratist equivocation.
All of the elements of this kind of discussion, and the proof that on these fundamental tactical cornerstones there is nothing that the most orthodox and extremist amongst us cannot subscribe to, will emerge more and more clearly in the preparation for the debates on the question of tactics at our Congress.
Turning now to the current execution of the tactics of the International, let us remember that the previously mentioned tactic of the united front, although it has not been sanctioned by the Third Congress, was nevertheless previously broached in the well‑known “Open Letter” from the German Communist Party to all the political and economic organizations of the proletariat, calling for common action for the realization of a series of postulates reflecting problems of immediate interest to the masses. Today, the German party seems willing to go further, raising the question in the field of government policy and presenting its position with regard to the constitution of a parliamentary-based proletarian government, which we will discuss in the following discourse.
However, while we await the decisions to be taken by the Communist International, which will no doubt correctly specify the meaning and terms of this, and before indicating in what sense we view this solution, and having also, we may say, tried it out in our party’s practical activity, we would like to make use of the text of the speech that Comrade Zinoviev gave at a meeting of the executive of the International on December 4, 1921, on the subject at hand, to draw from this same speech by the president of the International the proof that it is impossible to speak about any reason for an attenuation or correction, or even a slight contradiction between the current direction and the glorious global communist tradition.
Comrade Zinoviev first examines the state of the issue within the various parties of the International and thus explains the meaning of the united front formula in relation to aspects of the current situation around the world, in order to establish the basis for an international application of such tactics.
It is clear from Zinoviev’s statements that all of the tactical considerations being developed at present are based on the platform of the fundamental assertions of communism, which is the basis for the renewal of the International.
Today more than ever communist militants maintain the necessity of having a centralized and homogeneous communist party as the organ of struggle, and are ready to embrace the most severe disciplinary measures to achieve this objective; more than ever they maintain that only the revolutionary armed struggle and the dictatorship of the proletariat are the paths to revolution; more than ever they are convinced that we are experiencing a revolutionary crisis in capitalist society. The question is how we influence this development through the action of the Communist Party in the struggle for dictatorship. We can find and propose various solutions to this problem, but it remains for all of us the one direct objective of our efforts.
Whatever tactic we propose – says Zinoviev – the first condition for its useful application is safeguarding the absolute independence of our party. For this reason, we do not propose mergers. And as we will see, we do not propose blocs or alliances either. It is a matter of patiently pruning away at the simplicity of certain opinions and highlighting cases in which such simplicity hides a guilty and insidious duplicity, counterposing the honest complexity of our methods to their games of means and ends.
Zinoviev goes further, responding directly to the opportunists’ speculations regarding some of our fundamental assertions. Far from rejecting previous splits, we are also prepared for further splits if necessary, since these have only ever increased our freedom of action, allowing us to ride out a situation’s most difficult twists and turns, without ever losing sight of our revolutionary goal, which the opportunists have bartered away a thousand times to the bourgeoisie in exchange for services rendered, even if under cover of the most extreme demagogic proclamations of independence and rectitude.
Far from modifying the communist point of view concerning the use of armed military force in the revolutionary battle, our comrade’s writing claims the German March Action as being an authentic revolutionary action bearing good results. All of the considerations and conclusions that he advances as possible consequences of the March Action are guided by the concept that it is a matter of developing and accelerating and the preparation of the final struggle for the proletarian dictatorship, and that using for this purpose the spontaneous movement of that greater part of the workers, who still do not clearly distinguish the ultimate objective, does not imply a refusal to denounce those who peddle the illusion that the emancipation of workers can be achieved in other ways as traitors to the proletariat. We continue, says Zinoviev, with the work of crystallizing our parties, in which the social-democratic lie is denied citizenship, and not even in our dreams do we renounce criticism of the opportunists of the various yellow internationals. He also clearly states that our view of the present situation, characterized by the capitalist offensive, is that it presents obvious revolutionary tendencies, such that the proposal of a defensive tactic for the whole proletariat makes no sense at all: this would amount to the renunciation of the revolutionary struggle, to be satisfied with maintaining the present condition of the proletariat; whereas on the contrary, to address this immediate problem we consider it necessary to introduce a counteroffensive by the masses, placing them on the path of action, always supported by the communist parties, and only by them. It is no coincidence that the reformist, gradualist and pro‑unity gentlemen are today opposed to our modest “immediate demands” and sabotage the united front of the masses. They know that we want all this because in this way we extend our program’s development by crushing their methods and their defenseless and defeatist organization.
But it is not enough to show that Zinoviev declares his adherence to those positions we hold in common; we can and must (and this will be the subject of a subsequent article) show how he has the right to declare the deductions he has drawn from them to be both coherent and logical, even if we are proposing differences in the details of their application.
In the preceding article we insisted that the tactical initiatives supported by the Communist International today, which are summed up in the formula of the proletarian united front, do not imply any renunciation by their proponents of the fundamental directives of the communist movement, which have been affirmed and in particular have been opposed to the equivocal maneuvers of the social democrats.
We have proved this with Zinoviev’s own words. And it would not be difficult to do the same with the explicit statements of those comrades who have put forward proposals that seem more risky, such as those from the headquarters of the German party and from Rote Fahne.
However, our adversaries may object that such verbal declarations of fidelity to principles have no other purpose than to disguise a conversion to the right, while the tactical proposals with which we are concerned contain in themselves a contradiction with the directive followed until now by the Communist International, and with its previous position towards the social-democratic parties. But this is not true, and even if one believes, from the communist point of view and within our own camp, that these proposals, or at least some of the ways in which they are applied, are reprehensible, no one has the right to maintain that we are facing a crisis of principle within the world communist movement, or that we need to recognize substantial errors in the method we have so far supported.
With the enormous sum of theoretical and practical elaborations, of which the Third International is proud, the revolutionary method has passed forever from the initial and embryonic stage of abstract declarations and simplifications to face the test of the real world in all its formidable complexity.
Tactical problems are now understood in a more concrete sense. Whereas previously the positions to be assumed were chosen solely on the basis of their propaganda and educational effect on the masses, today it is a question of having a direct impact on events, and the degree of influence of tactical positions requires the sophistication and capacity to overcome apparent contradictions, which was already perfectly contained in the dialectics of the Marxist method.
The simple critique of reality is completed in its actual demolition; yesterday, adapting to it was tantamount to renouncing the one activity we could engage in to overcome it, today, it could mean seizing reality to subdue and conquer it. The powerful beam of a lighthouse cuts through the darkness in a magnificent straight line, but can be stopped by the most fragile of screens; the flame of the blowtorch licks docilely at metal, but only to soften and melt it, passing victoriously to the other side...
There is no Marxist who does not stand by Lenin in denouncing as an infantile disorder a criterion for action which excludes certain possible initiatives based simply on the consideration that they are not sufficiently straight and aligned within the formal schema of our ideas, with which they clash and create unsightly deformations. That the means can have aspects which are contrary to the ends for which we adopt them lies at the heart of our critical thinking: for an end that is superior, noble and seductive the means may appear wretched, tortuous and vulgar: what matters is being able to calculate their effectiveness, and whoever does so simply on the basis of appearances sinks to the level of a subjective and idealistic view of historical causalities, which is somewhat Quakerish; it ignores the superior resources of our critique, which is today becoming a strategy, and which is brought alive by the brilliant realistic understanding of Marx’s materialism
Are we not the ones who know how dictatorship, violence and terror serve as specific means for the triumph of a social regime of peace and freedom, and are we not the ones who cleared the field of ridiculous liberal and libertarian objections, which only attribute to our method the capacity to establish dark and bloodthirsty oligarchies, because it is conditioned by the outward characteristics of the methods adopted?
As there is no serious argument that can rule out the utility of adopting the bourgeoisie’s own methods to defeat the bourgeoisie, so it is not possible to deny a priori that the adoption of the tactics of the social democrats cannot defeat the social democrats.
We do not want to be misunderstood and we will postpone an explanation of our thinking until later on, and those who want to understand its main outlines in any case only need to study our theses on tactics. When we say that the field of possible and admissible tactics cannot be restricted by considerations dictated by a falsely doctrinal over-simplification, metaphysically dedicated to formal comparisons and preoccupied with purity and rectitude as ends in themselves, we do not mean that the field of tactics should remain boundless and that all methods are good to achieve our purposes. It would be an error to entrust the difficult resolution of the search for suitable methods to the simple consideration that there is an intention to use them to achieve communist objectives. You would only be repeating the mistake which consists in rendering an objective problem subjective, having contented yourself with the fact that if you choose, prepare and direct initiatives, you have decided to struggle for communist outcomes and allow yourself to be guided by the latter.
There exists, and therefore it can always be elaborated better, a criterion that is profoundly Marxist and anything but infantile, which sets the limits to tactical initiatives. It has nothing to do with the preconceptions and prejudices of a mistaken extremism, but is a criterion which arrives by another path at a useful forecast of the otherwise complex links connecting the tactical expedients we apply to the results we expect from them.
Zinoviev says that precisely because we have strong parties that are independent of opportunist influences, we can risk applying tactics that would be dangerous if our preparation and maturity were weaker. It is true that the fact that a tactic is dangerous is insufficient reason to condemn it: it is just one of the considerations that must be applied to assess it; it is really a question of judging the element of risk in relation to the possible benefits. On the other hand, as the revolutionary party’s ability to take the initiative grows, the maturing situation tends in general to carry its effort forward in an increasingly precise direction, making the outcome of any action more clearly apparent.
In short, in the analysis of the tactical proposals that are presented today, it is necessary to avoid hasty oversimplification. This alone can lead one to say that the German Communist Party, by proposing joint action with the independent and majority social democrats, repudiates the reason for its formation through splits from the one and the other. As soon as you consider the matter, you identify an infinite number of differences and new perspectives, which are in fact more important than any formal reconciliation.
First of all, Zinoviev usefully observes that an alliance is not the same thing as a merger. The organizational split from certain political elements can make it less difficult to do some work with them.
Then there is this: that proposing a united front is not the same thing as proposing an alliance. We know what is meant by a political alliance in the vulgar sense: you sacrifice or keep quiet about certain parts of your own program in order to meet halfway. But the tactic of the united front as understood by us communists does not contain these elements of renunciation on our part. They remain only as a potential danger: which we believe becomes preponderant if the base of the united front is removed from the field of direct proletarian action and trade union organization and encroaches on that of parliament and government; and we will say for what reasons, connected to the logical development of the latter tactic.
The proletarian united front is not about a banal joint committee of representatives of various organizations, in favor of which communists relinquish their independence and freedom of action, bartering it for a degree of influence over the movements of a larger mass than would follow it if they acted alone. It is something completely different.
We propose the united front because we feel certain the situation is such that the joint movements of the proletariat as a whole, when they pose problems which are not of interest to just one category or locality, but to all of them, can only achieve their aims by taking the communist road, that is to say, the road we would take them down if it depended on us to guide the entire proletariat. We propose the defense of immediate interests and of the existing conditions of the proletariat against the bosses’ attacks, because this defense, which has never been at odds with our revolutionary principles, can be made only by preparing for and launching the offensive in all its revolutionary ramifications, just as we intend to do.
In such a situation (and we won’t repeat here the considerations that would be required to demonstrate that it had reached this point of maturation, relating to the economic and political manifestations of the capitalist offensive) we can offer an agreement whereby we do not demand that the other parties accept, for example, the method of armed action or struggle for the proletarian dictatorship; but if we do not demand this, it is not because we think that it is better for the moment to renounce it all, and be satisfied with less, but because it is useless to formulate such proposals when we know that carrying them out would be constrained simply by having agreed to defend the modest objectives of the demands that would serve as a platform for the united front.
As soon as our understanding of the dialectical basis of this situation is deepened, we see that all of the intransigently simplistic objections completely collapse. “An alliance with the defeatists and those who betray the revolution, to support the revolution?” exclaims the appalled communist of the Fourth International stamp, or the centrist bootlicker of the type between the Second and the Third. But let us not dwell on this terminological exercise, or even say that we are infallible communists, we know what we are doing, everything we do is assuredly inspired by its revolutionary purpose, and we can even negotiate with the devil. On the contrary let us we respond with a critical examination of the situation and the developments that may arise from it, which will soothe our fears that things will go as... the devil wants.
The Marxist left current always supported intransigence, and had a thousand reasons to do so when the reformists proposed alliances with particular bourgeois parties. Such alliances would in fact have had the certain effect of paralyzing the organic development of a party capable of revolutionary propaganda and, in subsequent situations, of revolutionary preparation and action, while its results would have effectively marked out a path for the proletariat which, being just a blind alley, simply used up its energies in supporting bourgeois order. There is no question of renouncing this intransigence today. In the first place, collaborating with bourgeois parties and collaborating with parties whose members are recruited from the proletariat, with the implicit condition that they renounce the bourgeois bloc, is not even formally the same thing. And it is not even a collaboration that one wants to establish with such parties, but a very different kind of relationship, on the basis of which the Communist Party does not divert its attention and effort away from its own revolutionary objectives to focus on lesser ones, hoping that the social-democratic counter-revolutionaries can embrace this goal with a turn to the left, half reformist and half revolutionary; rather, it is based on the conviction that we must continue to fight for the communist program, and that the opportunists will continue to work for the counter-revolution, the purpose being to generate a situation from which there will emerge a struggle in which the entire proletariat is behind the communist line, after which the opportunists will have been definitively unmasked, having been brought face to face with their own promises of gradual and peaceful conquests.
The definition of the precise terms of the united front tactic is therefore a delicate issue for communists. It is necessary to be able to translate it into practice, and it is necessary to guarantee that it does not deviate from those characteristics that not only make it compatible with our objectives, but is also shown to be working towards them in a situation like today’s.
All this can and must be discussed, having done justice to the fears of certain puritan old maids, as well as the bland complacency of highly experienced prostitutes, who predict for others the same downfall as their own.
Before we proceed to the final part of this treatise, where we will express our own point of view, we do not want to pass over expositions on this subject made by other comrades and organizations of the Communist International, before commenting further on the spirit that animates some other documents that appeared later on. A new article by Radek, “The Immediate Tasks of the Communist International”, which completes his other paper, “Before the New Struggles”, and also two official documents: the manifesto of the workers of all countries, by the Communist International and the International of Red Trade Unions, and the theses adopted by the Executive Committee in the session of December 18, which will be published in our newspapers in full.
the basis for all discussions and decisions regarding the tactics to
be followed is not at all a retreat from the positions on which the
International fights. More than ever, it is a case of
The problem consists in bringing forces able prevail over the defensive and counter-revolutionary resources of the world bourgeoisie onto the terrain of the struggle for the dictatorship. These forces can only be drawn from the ranks of the working class. But in order to defeat the capitalist adversary, it is necessary to concentrate the efforts of the entire proletariat on revolutionary terrain. This has always been the fundamental role of the class party, according to the Marxist point of view. This means achieving real, not merely mechanical, unity; it means having unity for the revolution, not unity for itself. This objective is achieved by following the path embarked on so resolutely by the Third International after the war: concentrating in the ranks of the communist parties the elements that have a conception of the revolutionary necessity of the struggle, that do not allow themselves to be diverted by the attainment of partial and limited ends, that do not want to collaborate in any situation with fractions of the bourgeoisie. Based on this initial platform, and having passed judgment on the whole range of degenerations within the movement, these elements constitute the nucleus around which the effective unity of the masses is achieved in a progressive process whose speed and ease depend on the objective situation and the tactical capabilities of the communists.
In his articles, Radek does not even remotely put any of this in doubt. The tactical resources he puts forward are those that he says may be needed (given the current situation) to push broad battalions of the proletariat into the struggle for revolutionary dictatorship.
We have seen how the general situation is characterized by the capitalist offensive against the conditions of life of the proletariat, because capitalism feels that it cannot avoid catastrophe without stepping up the exploitation of the workers. At the same time that capitalism depresses the masses economically by means of economic and political offensives, it takes the opportunity to pursue its own reorganization; but equally, by accentuating the character of industrial imperialism, it moves towards the abyss of another war. This is the unanimous communist judgment of the situation, the consequence of which is the urgent need for the proletariat to respond with a revolutionary counter-attack, and to speed this up, and to speed this up, it is necessary to identify the ways in which the developments of such a situation can be used for revolutionary ends. From this it follows, as we have seen, that even a purely defensive economic struggle of the proletariat poses the problem of revolutionary action and the crushing of capitalism. Why was it not revolutionary to demand a significant increase in wages in the past, whereas today it is revolutionary to demand that they are not reduced? Because the first action could be pursued by limited local and professional groups of workers, in a haphazard way, whereas the second action, which has become necessary today, and which is the only one possible unless the proletariat renounces all forms of association and organization, requires all of the workers’ forces to take to the field, beyond sectoral and local divisions, and indeed on a worldwide scale.
The old formal and federalist unity of traditional social democracy, which barely disguised the divisions in groups of interests and separate movements under the cloak of empty rhetoric, including division into national proletarian parties, is yielding its position in this decisive period of capitalist evolution to the true unity of the working class, which is irresistibly leading to a harmonious centralization of the world proletarian movement. The Communist International has already given this movement the skeleton of unitary organization as well as the soul of revolutionary theoretical consciousness. The proletariat is still divided as regards ideas and political opinions, but there will be unity in action. Do we claim that unity of doctrine and political faith must, according to who knows what abstract criterion, precede unity of action? No, because that would be to turn on its head the Marxist method, which we staunchly support, and which tells us how, from the effective unity of the movement created by the dissolution of capitalism, there must necessarily arise a unity of consciousness and political doctrine.
This realistic approach to the unity of all workers in concrete action will also win their unity in the profession of their political faith, based on communist political faith, and not simply on a shapeless jumble of current political trends. That is to say, we will gain unity of action by means of the revolutionary postulates of communism.
All of us are willing to make whatever sacrifices are needed to move things forward at this favorable juncture. It is a question of having understood the situation well and of taking into account that its later phases will involve a long road ahead. Radek proposes the united front of the proletariat not only to address the problems of resistance to the capitalist offensive, but also to address the question of government. He is referring to the situation confronting the German proletariat. In Germany there is a special economic situation, not because a barrier separates it from the rest of the world, but because the process that characterizes the global crisis finds its focus in what is happening in the German-speaking countries.
Let’s speak of the formidable problem of the reparations that must be paid to the victors. The German productive class is making an incalculable effort to pile up products destined for foreign markets in order to realize the value of war reparations that must be paid to the Entente. But this is only achieved by means of the most shameless exploitation of the proletariat. The German Government, whoever it is, must concern itself with this supreme problem: where to find the billions needed to pay reparations. The entire fragile edifice of the attempted capitalist reconstruction rests on the solution to this problem. Radek appears to be convinced that if a workers’ government were formed on the basis that it is German capitalists who must pay, rather than workers and other poorer social strata, this would bring about a situation in which the only outcome would be the struggle of the German proletariat for the dictatorship and the sabotage of the bourgeois world program.
This necessity is felt by the German proletariat only in a superficial sense, at least by the part of it that identifies with the social-democratic parties, who are strong in parliament. Therefore the proletariat pushes them into power. If they take it, the problem of civil war will arise. If they do not, the masses will abandon them. But they could find a way to save their opportunism with the following argument: that the communists are preventing them from making this bold gesture, thereby creating an alibi for collaboration with the bourgeoisie. Radek believes it would be good to take away this alibi. We grant him his opinion, but we insist on the fact that even the German comrades who act in this way have not lost sight of the directives for the maximum communist goals, and, what is more, by remaining insistent on this point, we are setting another goal: that of encouraging many of our comrades, especially the young and the audacious, to despise the simplistic laziness that can take refuge behind a preconception or a cliché, without penetrating the complexity of the tactical arguments arising from an analysis of the current circumstances; thus depriving themselves of the most effective means of intervening in a debate of this type and engaging in the enormous work of preparation that is needed to avoid falling into the ever-present trap of opportunism.
Finally, with respect to the official documents of the International, we shall restrict ourselves to pointing out that the manifesto is addressed neither to the parties nor to the trade union organs of the other Internationals, but to the proletariat of all countries. The very fact that workers adhering to Christian and liberal unions are invited to join the united front demonstrates the difference between the two concepts: nobody would think of a united front with Christian and liberal parties.
And if, on the other hand, the theses of the Executive Committee for now avoid making a general theoretical framework for the question, they establish some very important points, such as the organizational independence of our communist parties, and not only that, but also their absolute freedom, as they embark on the united front initiative, to criticize and take issue with the parties and the organizations of the Second International and the Second-and-a-Half International: freedom to act “on the field of ideas”, for our very specific program; unity of action of the entire proletarian front.
This apparent contradiction or change of position is neither a novelty, nor an unusual conclusion. The party’s view of it must be robust and all‑encompassing: among the masses, it must be conducted with infinite precaution and a sense of perspective, by propagandizing its most salient aspects and gradually developing its mechanism, which will be laid bare by the facts themselves.
It is inevitable that the masses, setting out with this superficial notion (of either moving towards a split or towards unity) imagine that the two directions are opposed to one another. But in reality it is not like that. Unity of the workers and separation from degenerate elements and especially from treasonable leaders are, on the contrary, two parallel victories; we have known this for a long time and the masses will only see it at the end of the exercise. What is essential is that this should be understood in the sense of the struggle, of resistance against capitalist impositions.
Freedom and independence of organization and internal discipline, of propaganda, of criticism; unity in action: this is what the communist parties must put forward and achieve in order to win.
The formal juxtaposition is no more than what has always been expressed by our slogan: workers of the world, unite. Thanks to this, we unmasked as traitors those who divided the proletariat during the war, who divide it in the day‑to‑day activity of the trade unions by preventing the thousands of disputes and struggles that are currently taking place from merging into one. This juxtaposition is not only the reason we are in favor of more severe political selection, but also the reason we are for the unity of union organization, a conception and tactic that the party can verify through day‑to‑day results, since the positive progress of our struggle against Italian reformist opportunism is the result of our tactical position, according to which after the political split of Livorno we were determined to remain in the trade union organizations, in spite of them being directed by the reformists from whom we had separated; and we stayed there to combat them effectively.
The problem, therefore, must be considered on two levels. The Communist International does not return to yesterday’s work, but reaps its rewards on this path that leads to the double result of having a revolutionary political movement at the head of the proletariat, and having the entire proletariat rallying around its banner.
In the preceding articles we set ourselves an explanatory purpose, to describe the current status of the question of the “united front” in the presently much debated official documents of the Communist International and statements of certain communist parties and comrades. At the same time we have sought to get our readers to identify with the method which, in order to deliberate on such questions, must be adopted if we wish to live up to the historical and tactical experience of the Communist International, and permanently rise above the mental laziness of over-simplification, and the practical sterility of actions driven by a phobia of formal preconceptions. And through this exposition we have wished to reclaim the right of these comrades of ours to develop their tactical plans so that we are judged to have adopted a very different stance to the highly despicable one adopted by the opportunists, who wait in vain for communists to give up the firm and solidly revolutionary content of their thinking and their action.
We will now briefly express our thinking, which is rather more than in a personal capacity, since we will be referring to the exhaustive discussions which have taken place on the subject in the Executive Committee of our party to provide the mandate to the comrades who will represent it at the forthcoming meeting in Moscow. It will be no mystery to anyone that the thesis defended by the Italian Communists will be somewhat different, or if we want to use the old expression, further “left” than that represented, for example, by Radek and supported by comrades in Germany; let us indicate to all comrades, and especially the young and generically “extremist”, how much greater the weight of our party’s contribution to the discussions about such a difficult problem will be if we show that our divergence is not born of particular misunderstandings, but of an examination of the question conducted with perfect consciousness of its limitations, taking into account all the elements from which other comrades’ thinking is deduced without entrenching ourselves in absurd denials of certain conclusions, which would convince no‑one. And we reaffirm this incontrovertible fact before all: there is no danger of the Communist International abandoning, albeit minimally, the platform of revolutionary Marxism, from which it has issued its war cry to the masses of the world proletariat against the capitalist regime and all of its supporters and accomplices, great and small.
We refer comrades to that analysis of the present situation, on which we all undoubtedly agree, which summarizes the diagnosis of the bourgeois offensive as a result of this phase in the crisis of capitalism. We also say that we definitively accept, insofar as our tactical conclusions are based on the Marxist method, the thesis that agitation and revolutionary preparation is mainly done in the field of the proletariat’s struggles for economic demands. This realistic view explains the tactic of trade union unity, which is fundamental for us communists, to the same degree as our ruthless distancing ourselves from any hint of opportunism in the political field. In the same way, the tactical position that our party upholds today in Italy, with the campaign for the united front of all workers against the bosses’ offensive, is timely and very successful. In this instance the united front means common action by all labor categories, all local and regional groups of workers, all national trade union organizations of the proletariat; and far from signifying a muddle of different political methods, it goes hand‑in‑hand with the most effective way of winning the masses over to the one political method that shows them the path to their emancipation: the communist method. Doctrine and practice converge in confirming that no obstacle or opposition is found in the fact that, as a platform of mass agitation, concrete and momentary economic demands are formulated, and as a form of action a movement of the proletariat as a whole is proposed in the field of direct action, guided by their class organizations, the trade unions. The direct result of all this is an intensification of the ideological and material training of the proletariat for the struggle against the bourgeois State, together with the campaign against the false counselors of opportunism of every hue.
With tactics delineated in this way, leaving aside the varieties of application that can be thought of as dependent on the various situations in the various countries of proletarian parties and trade union organizations, we find nothing that would compromise the two fundamental and parallel conditions of the revolutionary process; that is to say, on the one hand the existence and consolidation of a solid political party founded on a clear consciousness of the path to revolution, and on the other hand the growing combination of the great masses, impelled instinctively to action by the economic situation, in the struggle against capitalism, a struggle in which the party provides direction and a general staff.
When we wish instead to examine the influence on our common objectives (to facilitate and accelerate the victory of the proletariat in the struggle to overthrow bourgeois power and institute the dictatorship) of other tactical approaches, such as the one proposed by the Communist Party in Germany and set out in articles by Karl Radek, approaches which entail a plan of action for the proletariat to intervene in the political mechanism of the democratic State, it must be noted that the characteristics of the problem, and therefore the conclusions to be reached, change radically.
The picture presented by Radek is based on clear analogies with that of the situation of capitalist offensive from which we set out to define our tactic of the single trade union front. We have the proletariat, which sees its exploitation being massively intensified by the employers, owing to the irresistible influence of the general situation on the latter’s action and the pressure it exerts. We communists, and the comrades who are with us, know perfectly well that the only way out is through the violent overthrow of bourgeois power; but the masses, because of their limited degree of political consciousness and because their mood is still influenced by the social‑democratic leaders, do not see it as an immediate way out and are not taking to this revolutionary path, even if the Communist Party wants to set them an example. The masses think and believe that some kind of intervention by the State authorities could solve the acute economic problem. Therefore they want a government which, as in Germany, decides that the burden of war reparations must fall on the class of the great industrialists and business owners, or else expects the State to implement a law on working hours, on unemployment, on workers’ control. As with the case of demands to be obtained by trade union action, the Communist Party should embrace this attitude and initial impulse of the masses and join with the other forces that propose or talk about winning advantages by means of the peaceful conquest of parliamentary government, and setting in motion the proletariat on the path of this experiment in order to profit from its inevitable failure, with a view to provoking the proletarian struggle on the basis of overthrowing bourgeois power and the victory of the dictatorship.
We believe that such a plan is based on a contradiction and in practice contains the elements of an inevitable failure. There is no doubt that the Communist Party must also resolve to utilize the non‑conscious moods of the broad masses, and cannot restrict itself to negative, purely theoretical preaching when it is faced with a general tendency towards other paths of action that are not specific to its own doctrine and praxis. But this utilization can only be productive if, by placing itself on the terrain on which the broad masses move, and thus working at one of the two factors essential for revolutionary success, we are sure that we are not compromising the other no less indispensable factor, which consists of the existence and progressive strengthening of the party, together with the organization of the part of the proletariat that has already been brought onto the terrain where the party’s slogans are having an effect.
In considering whether this danger does or does not exist, it should be borne in mind that, as long and painful historical experience teaches, the party as an organism and the degree of its political influence are not inviolable, but are subject to all of the influences of events as the unfold.
If one day, after a more or less prolonged period of struggles and incidents, the working masses should finally arrive at the vague realization that any attempted counter-attack is useless unless it fights back against the bourgeois State apparatus itself, but in the earlier stages of the struggle the organization of the Communist Party and those of the movements on its flanks (such as the trade union and the military organization) had been seriously compromised, the proletariat would find itself deprived of the very weapons it needs for its struggle, the indispensable contribution of the minority that possesses a clear vision of the tasks that need to be carried out, and which, by holding onto this vision over a long period, had undertaken the indispensable training, and equipped itself with the indispensable weaponry, in the broad sense of the term, that is needed to ensure the victory of the broad masses.
We think that this would happen, demonstrating the sterility of all tactical plans like those we are examining, if the Communist Party overwhelmingly and blatantly assumed a political stance that annulled and invalidated its inviolable character as the party of opposition in relation to the State and other political parties.
We believe we are able to demonstrate, from both critical and practical perspectives, that this thesis has nothing abstract about it, nor does it derive from the desire, in the context of this complex argument, to create arbitrary schemas. Rather, it responds to a concrete and exhaustive assessment of the subject.
The Communist Party’s stance of active political opposition is not a doctrinal luxury but, as we will see, a concrete condition of the revolutionary process.
In fact, active opposition means constant preaching of our theses on the inadequacy of all action directed towards conquering power by democratic means and of all political struggle that would like to remain on legal and peaceful terrain, fidelity to this stance being exercised through constant criticism of the work of governments and legal parties while avoiding any joint responsibility for it; and through the creation, drilling and training of the organs of struggle that only an anti‑legalist party such as ours can build, outside and against the mechanism that is solely there for the defense of the bourgeoisie.
This method is theoretical insofar as it is indispensable that a leading minority should possess theoretical consciousness, and is organizational insofar as, while the majority of the proletariat is not mature for a revolutionary struggle, it provides for the constitution and education of cadres of the revolutionary army.
In this respect, loyal as we are to the radiant tradition of the Communist International, we do not apply to the political parties the same criterion we do to the trade union economic organisms, that is to say, we judge them not on the basis of their recruitment of members and the class terrain on which they recruit, but on the basis of their attitude towards the State and its representative machinery. A party that voluntarily remains within the confines of the law, or can conceive of no other political action than that which can be developed without the use of violence against the civil institutions of the bourgeois democratic constitution, is not a proletarian party but rather a bourgeois party; and in a certain sense, the mere fact that a political movement, even those that place themselves outside the boundaries of the law (like syndicalist and anarchist movements), refuses to accept the concept of the State organization of the proletarian revolutionary power, i.e. the dictatorship, is enough for us to deliver this negative judgment.
At this point we can only state the platform defended by our party: proletarian trade union united front, unceasing political opposition towards the bourgeois government and all the legal parties.
We will cover developments within our organization in the next article.
We do not however want to omit to mention that if parliamentary and governmental collaboration are completely excluded from the moment that we adopt such a platform, we nevertheless do not renounce, as we will show, a much better and less risky use of those demands that the masses are led to make in the form of requests to the State authorities or to other parties, in so far as they can be supported independently as outcomes to be achieved by means of direct action, external pressure and criticism of the policies of government by all the other parties.
We wish to conclude these notes of ours, written during the discussion of the problem at hand and taking into account factors that were only just emerging, with a presentation of the arguments that support the position assumed by our Party’s Executive Committee, according to which the proletariat’s unity of action must be pursued and carried out on the basis of the policy of opposition to the bourgeois State and the legalitarian parties, a position which the Communist Party must develop ceaselessly. If the repetition of some essential points has not helped in setting out our position, they in no way harm the intended purpose: to draw comrades’ full attention to the delicate and complex terms of the problem under discussion.
We would like to point out that there is a useful distinction to be made between the subjective and objective conditions for the revolution. The objective conditions consist of the economic situation and the direct pressure it exerts on the proletarian masses; the subjective ones refer to the degree of consciousness and combativeness of the proletariat and, above all, of its vanguard, the Communist Party.
An indispensable objective condition is the participation in the struggle of the broadest layer of the masses, directly spurred on by economic motives, even if for the most part they have no consciousness of the development of the struggle in its entirety; a subjective condition is the existence, in an increasingly numerous minority, of a clear vision of the needs of the movement going forward, accompanied by a readiness to support and direct the final phases of the struggle. Let us admit that it would be anti‑Marxist not only to pretend that all workers involved in the struggle had a clear awareness of its development and a strong-willed orientation towards its aims, but equally anti‑Marxist to seek such a “state of perfection” in every Communist Party militant, when the subjective conditions for revolutionary action reside in the formation of a collective organ, the Party, which is at one and the same time a school (in the sense of a theoretical tendency) and an army with the corresponding hierarchy and relevant training.
But we believe that it would fall into a subjectivism no less anti‑Marxist, because it is voluntaristic in the bourgeois sense, if the subjective conditions were condensed into the enlightened will of a group of leaders, who could take the forces of the Party and of others over which it exerts an influence down the most complex tactical paths, regardless of the influence exerted on these forces by the development of the action itself and the method chosen to take it forward.
This is because the Party is not the invariable and incorruptible “subject”, the “enactor”, of abstruse philosophies, but is in its turn an objective element of the situation. The solution to the very difficult problem of party tactics is not yet analogous to problems of a military nature; in politics you can adjust, but you cannot manipulate the situation to your liking: the facts governing the problem are not our army and the enemy’s army, but the formation of the army, from indifferent strata and from the ranks of the enemy itself (and as much on one side as on the other) while hostilities are taking place.
The best use of the objective revolutionary conditions, without any danger of ignoring the subjective ones, indeed with the certainty of developing them brilliantly, arises from taking part in and spurring on the mass actions around economic and defensive demands, which are prompted by the bosses’ offensive in the current state of the capitalist crisis, as we have already said. Thus, by supporting the masses in following the impulses they already feel in a clear and powerful way, we lead them along the revolutionary path that we have marked out, certain that we will overcome the subjective conditions ranged against us, and that the masses will be faced with the need to fight for the revolution in general, for which our party will provide them with a theoretical and technical toolset, which the struggle itself will improve and enhance. Our party’s independent political position will allow it to carry out, in the course of action, the ideal and material revolutionary preparation which has been lacking in other situations (even if they also impelled the masses into struggle) because of, among other reasons, the absence of a minority, differentiated with regard to revolutionary consciousness and preparation for the decisive forms of struggle.
The bourgeoisie’s defensive strategy is to oppose the proletarian revolution with subjective counter-conditions, offsetting the objective revolutionary pressure born of the difficulties and obstacles of the world crisis with the resources of a political and ideological monopoly over the proletariat’s activity, through which the ruling class attempts to mobilize the hierarchy of proletarian leadership.
Through the organizations of the social-democratic parties, a vast section of the proletariat is trapped by bourgeois ideology the lack of a revolutionary ideology, and we refer here not so much to the ideological conceptions of individuals but rather to the tendency to act collectively on the basis of a firm line and an organization of struggle in the political field. The bourgeoisie and its allies work within the proletariat to spread the conviction that violent methods are not required in its struggle to improve its standard of living, and that the peaceful employment of the democratic representative apparatus within the orbit of legal institutions are the weapons it should use. Such illusions severely undermine the chances of revolution because at a certain point they are bound to fail, but at the same time such a failure will not cause the masses to lend their support to the struggle against the bourgeois legal and State apparatus by means of the revolutionary war, nor proclaim and support the class dictatorship, the sole means of crushing the enemy class. The proletariat’s reluctance and inexperience in the use these crucial weapons will be entirely to the bourgeoisie’s advantage. Thus the task of the Communist Party is to destroy, among as many proletarians as possible, this subjective repugnance towards delivering the decisive blow against the enemy, and to prepare it for what will be required in order to take such action.
Although it is fanciful to pursue this task by means of the ideological preparation and drilling in class warfare of every single proletarian, it is nevertheless indispensable to ensure it by developing and consolidating a collective organism whose work and behavior in this sphere represents an appeal to the largest possible part of the working class, so that by possessing a point of reference and support the inevitable disillusionment which will eventually dispel the democratic lies will be followed by an effective conversion to the methods of revolutionary struggle. In this sense we cannot win without the majority of the proletariat, that is, while the majority of the proletariat is still on the political platform of legality and social democracy; the Third Congress stated as much, and it was right. But this is precisely why we must make sure that these tactics are adopted in such a way that, within the movements of the masses, which are provoked by objective economic conditions, there is a progressive increase in the number of adherents within this minority who, having the Communist Party as a nucleus, have based their action and preparation on anti-legalist terrain.
From the critical point of view and from that of the real practical experiences that we possess, nothing stands in the way of a transition from the action of the broad masses for demands that capitalism neither wants to, nor is able to, concede and against which it will deploy the open reaction of both regular and irregular forces, to the action for the total emancipation of the working class, because both the one and the other have become impossible without the overthrow of the bourgeois politico-military control apparatus, against which the workers are led, whereas the Communist Party had already organized itself for the struggle against it, bringing together a section of the masses; a party which has never in the course of the struggle concealed the reality that we must struggle against forces of this nature, and has taken upon itself the first phase of the battle by means of guerrilla class warfare, through direct action, through revolutionary conspiracy.
On the other hand everything leads us to condemn, as something very different and with an opposite effect, the attempt to transfer the front of the broad masses from an action which, even though it has objective demands that are immediate and accessible to the masses, takes place on the political platform of legal democracy, to an action that is anti-legalitarian and for the dictatorship of the proletariat. Here it is not about changes in objectives, but about changes in the plan of action, of its organization, of its methods. Such a tactical conversion is only possible, in our opinion, in the minds of condottieri who have forgotten the equilibrium of Marxist dialectics and imagine they are already working with an army of perfectly drilled and trained automatons rather than with tendencies and capacities that are still in the course of being developed among elements who need to be organized but who are always prone to relapsing into the inconsistencies of individual and decentralized actions.
The path of the revolution becomes a blind alley if the proletariat, in order to realize that the multi‑colored façade of liberal and popular democracy conceals the iron bastions of the class State, were to proceed to the bitter end without thinking to equip itself with the appropriate means of demolishing the last decisive obstacle, until the point when the ferocious forces of reaction, armed to the teeth, emerge from the fortress of bourgeois domination and throw themselves against it. The Party is necessary to the revolutionary victory inasmuch as it is necessary that, well before it, a minority of the proletariat starts shouting incessantly at the rest that they must take up arms for the final battle, equipping and training themselves for the inevitable struggle. This is precisely why the Party, in order to accomplish its specific task, must not only preach and show through reasoned arguments that the peaceful and legal path is an insidious one, but must prevent the most advanced section of the proletariat from being lulled to sleep by democratic illusions, and assign it to formations which, on the one hand, begin to ready themselves for the technical requirements of the struggle by confronting the sporadic actions of bourgeois reaction, and on the other hand get themselves, and a large section of the masses close to them, used to the political and ideological requirements of decisive action through unremitting criticism of the social democratic parties and fighting against them inside the trade unions.
The social-democratic experiment is bound to happen in certain situations and it should be utilized by communists, but one shouldn’t think of this “utilization” as an abrupt act which happens at the end of the experiment, but rather as the result of an incessant critique, which would have been carried out by the Communist Party, and for which a clear separation of responsibility is indispensable.
Hence our idea that the Communist Party can never abandon its position of political opposition to the State and to the other parties, since we consider this to be a part of its work of constructing the subjective conditions for the revolution, its very raison d’être.
A communist party confused with the pacifist and legalistic parties of social democracy, in a political, parliamentary or governmental campaign, no longer absolves the function of the Communist Party. At the end of such a phase, objective conditions will present the fatal predicament of the revolutionary war, the imperative of assaulting and destroying the capitalist State machine; subjectively any hopes placed by the proletariat in bloodless and legal methods will have been disappointed, but it will lack the synthesis of objective and subjective conditions which the independent preparation of the Communist Party and of the minority that it had managed to gather around itself would have supplied. A situation will arise no different in practice from that which the Italian Socialist Party experienced on many occasions when it consisted of opposing tendencies; the masses disappointed by the failure of reformist methods expect a slogan that never arrives because the extreme elements do not have an independent organization, do not know their strength, are sharing responsibility with the various reformists in the face of general distrust while no‑one has thought of charting the features of an organization that can function, struggle and wage war, just as the implacable prospect of civil war looms large.
For all these reasons, our party states that there should be no talk of alliances on the political front with other parties, even if they do call themselves “proletarian”, nor of subscribing to programs which imply a participation by the Communist Party in the democratic conquest of the State. This does not exclude the possibility of proposing and backing claims, achievable through proletarian pressure, which would be enacted by means of decisions of the political power of the State, and which the social democrats say they want to and can achieve through the latter, since such action does not reduce the level of initiative which the proletariat has achieved by direct struggle.
For example, one of our demands for the united front to be supported with the national general strike is assistance for the unemployed by the industrialist class and by the State, but we refuse any complicity with the cheap trickery of the “concrete” programs of State policy proposed by the socialist party and the reformist trade union bosses, even if they were to agree to propose them as the program of a “worker’s” government instead of the one they dream of in a respectable and fraternal collusion with the parties of the ruling class.
There is a great difference between supporting a measure (which we could call “reform” in a parody of old debates) from inside or from outside the State, a difference which is determined by how situations evolve. With direct action by the masses from the outside, if the State is unable or unwilling to give way, you arrive at the struggle to overthrow it; if it does give way, even partially, the method of anti‑legalist means of action will be valorized and practiced; whereas with the method of conquering from within, if that fails, like the plan that is being advocated today, it is no longer possible to count on forces capable of attacking the State machine, their process of aggregation around an independent nucleus having been interrupted.
The action of the broad masses in the united front therefore can only be achieved in the context of direct action and co‑operation with the trade unions in all places and of whatever category and tendency, and it is up to the Communist Party to initiate this agitation, since the other parties, by supporting the inaction of the masses in the face of the provocations of the ruling and exploiting class and by diverting it onto the legal and democratic terrain of the State, have shown that they have deserted the proletarian cause, allowing us to push to the maximum the struggle to lead the proletariat into action with communist directives and with communist methods, upheld alongside the humblest section of the exploited, who just want a crust of bread or are defending it against the insatiable greed of the bosses, but against the mechanism of the current institutions and against whoever places themselves on their terrain.
Party General meeting- Florence 26‑28 January 2018 [GM130]
– Saturday session
The Hungarian Revolution of 1919
The Succession of the Modes of Production, the Germanic Variant
The Party’s trade Union Activity
Course of the Economic Crisis
The Military Question, Final Phase on the Western Front
History of India, between the two World Wars
The PCd’I and the Civil War in Italy
– Sunday session
The Organic Party according to Lenin
Summing up the Chinese Question
The Concept of the Dictatorship, Before Marx: Blanqui
Report by the Venezuelan Section
Class Struggles in Iran
Our meeting in Florence between Friday 26 and Sunday 28 February 2018 was well attended with representatives from all of our sections.
As usual, Friday evening and Saturday morning were dedicated to the Centre’s report on the activity conducted over the past few months, on the organizational aspects of the meeting and collating the work of the various groups engaged in specific research tasks, including intervention in the unions and workers’ struggles, propaganda, etc.
The various sessions were conducted with the usual care and attention, making sure that the subject-matter of the expositions, always exacting, was presented in such a way as to be easily comprehensible to all comrades and that sufficient time was dedicated to it.
But let us remind ourselves of the purpose of this work we are engaged in.
In the Naples Theses of 1965, we read:
“In the course of party evolution the path followed by the formal parties will undoubtedly be marked by continuous U‑turns and ups and downs, and also by ruinous precipices, and will clash with the ascending path of the historical party”.
We know all about the century-long “broken curve” of the formal party, which over successive phases the left components of the movement have tried to approximate to the “continuous, harmonious curve of the historical party”. In the First International what is shared by both is only delimitation along class lines and the supreme communist goal. In the Second there came the additional recognition of the common and undisputed scientific social doctrine of Marxism. In the Third we get closer to the legacy of Marx, with the dogma of the dictatorship of the party accepted and social democratic reformism rejected. But the Third International doesn’t manage to achieve a common definition of tactics. This would mean that compact discipline and total organizational unity, despite the attempts to theorize it and achieve it, was not achieved within the numerous parties, groups and currents which necessarily confronted one another within the CI.
Due to that, and until such time as Stalinism had managed to totally suffocate all collaboration and connections between communists within the International, the Italian left always treated “as comrades” all of its components, considering them as engaged in the search to find the correct route to the revolution in Europe.
As for us today, and at least since 1952, we refer to the Italian Left inasmuch that we recognize that at an earlier stage, with greater clarity and completeness than the other currents, it drew the necessary, inevitable balance sheet of the greatness and the weakness of the Third International and the revolutionary assault in the early twentieth century in Europe. Some of the formulations of our left, we know, are “put better” compared to those of other lefts, and sometimes Lenin’s as well. Although Lenin remains a giant figure who is totally, and only, one of us.
The upshot of this for the party today is that we cannot march alongside (for example) “Leninists”, “Trotskyists”, and “Luxemburgists” – the betrayers of Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg – who have “lagged behind” with respect to serious historical lessons which are not to be ignored.
Today, small party as we are, we continue that work of continual approximation of the living political organ of the working class to its impersonal, scientific, consciousness of itself and of history. We no longer have currents inside the party, not because the rules don’t allow it, along with consequent expulsions, but because there is no call for them. The agreement between us, not only on who we are and what we want, but also on how to get there is sufficiently well‑grounded in previously established facts as to ensure that no profound agreements arise.
We present below brief accounts of the numerous reports delivered at the General Meeting, the full texts of the speeches to be published in Comunismo.
– Saturday Session
Course of the World Economy
The Rearming of the States
The Military Question: The Western Front 1916‑17; the Italian counter-attack in the Piave
The Revolution in Hungary of 1919
– Sunday Session
The Social Situation in the early 1920s in China and the International’s Policy
Account of our trade union activity
Report by the Venezuelan Section
The Concept and Practice of Dictatorship, Before Marx: Blanqui in the Commune
Between Friday 25 and 27 May, Comrades from Turin, France, Venezuela, Great Britain, Friuli, Cortona, Rome, Bologna, Florence and Parma, representing our various sections and groups met together at the pleasant party premises in Genoa for our general meeting.
A full and well-organized agenda: on Friday and early Saturday morning the organizational meeting; from late Saturday morning through to Sunday a presentation of the reports.
All of these difficult studies and reports, which are definitely not academic or merely historiographic in tone, are necessary in order to give additional substance and empirical confirmation to the body of Theses that our communist movement has alligned over the course of almost two centuries; they are the soundings into the past required to maintain the party in a direct relationship with today’s social and workers’ struggles, from which, in a complex relationship of mutual feedback, it draws its strength and rationale.
It is on the basis of this hard work that we expect the small party of today to eventually extend itself, in a natural and spontaneous way, to become the renascent world party of the working class. As was already the case for the First International, it will set itself one consciously declared aim: that of achieving international communism, without classes and without a political State. But, having attained historical maturity, it will also, as well as professing just one doctrine, the Marxist one, profess just one strategy, known in advance and applicable to the different areas of the world according to their level of development.
As stated in the theses: “although accepting that the party’s perimeter is limited, we must realize that we are preparing the true party, healthy and efficient at the same time, for a period of history when the infamies of the contemporary social fabric will see the insurgent masses returning as the vanguard of history”.
As usual, pending final checks and the publication of definitive versions of the reports, we provide here brief summaries.
– Saturday session
The Civil War in Italy, from the dissolution of the Alleanza del Lavoro to the March on Rome
The Succession of the modes of production, Feudalism
Rise and Fall of the Revolution in Germany
The History of Class Struggle in India
The Organic Party of Lenin
Course of the World Economy
The Concept and the Practice of Dictatorship: Marx and Engels
– Sunday Session
The Military Question: the Wars of the Proletariat
The Party’s Trade Union Activity
China. The Double Revolution in Marxism and in the Theses of the 3rd C.I.
Material for the Study of the Hungarian Revolution of 1919
We see huge amounts of work piling up on the tables at our general meetings. It is a fact that Communists, representing in all senses the labouring class, are also recognizable by their capacity to work harder or better than others. And this is not because they are individuals of exceptional capacity or willpower or are somehow different from the normal worker, but simply because they adopt the right approach and methodology, which prevents them from wasting their time, and from dissipating their energy in ‘personalisms’; in the petty, spiteful conflicts that afflict the whole of the moribund bourgeois world.
A network for and a training in, the common work, based on a shared approach and perspective, is what it is all about; a collective work, accustomed to applying the lessons of history and the party’s tried and tested doctrine, which even when formulations that might appear heterodox or innovative are aired, they don’t cause a scandal or invite personal reprimands but are viewed as useful stimuli that might deepen our understanding the infinite repercussions and implications of our impersonal, definitive and complete social science.
This mass of continuous, consistent, organic work we undertake is directed towards establishing a link with the ever present class struggle; for when the fog of social peace finally begins to lift, a strong two‑way connection between the party and the working class will be absolutely indispensible.
Our approach, which we may characterise as ‘serene haste’, was clearly in evidence at the Florence meeting, which commenced on the Friday evening and was attended by comrades from Parma, Rome, Florence, Bari, Bologna, Cortona, Venezia Giulia, Lodi, Genoa, Turin, Paris and Great Britain. Those unable to attend had already sent in reports on the work of the various sections.
After a report by the Centre on Party activity since the previous meeting there followed the organizational part, dedicated primarily to the planning of future work. Late Saturday morning the exposition of the reports began, and we present here an initial synthesis.
The next chapter in our ongoing account looked at the Hungarian Soviet Republic.
On 21 March 1919 the Revolutionary Council was constituted and immediately proclaimed the Council Republic. Kun announced the election of delegates, with only the proletariat given the vote.
On 22 April Kun wrote to Lenin: “The bourgeoisie find it difficult to understand how the change in Hungary was seemingly so painless, after the bloody October revolution in Russia.(…) They saw nationalist bluff in our revolution (…) But the radical break with capitalism shows clearly that our revolution was really a communist one. No doubt, blood will yet be shed in the Hungarian revolution too, plenty of blood. Counter-revolution is about to raise its head (…) Our position is a critical one. But come what may, all our steps are guided by the interests of the world revolution. Not yet for a moment does it occur to us to sacrifice the interests of the world revolution to the interests of merely one part of international revolution”.
Kun then went on to refer to the justifications, which he believed well-founded at the time, for the coalition with the Social-Democrats: “The pact we have concluded, on the basis of a programme, was undoubtedly based on principles and tactics, and has therefore created a real unity. The members of the extreme right have been pushed out of the party, and the old trade union bureaucracy is gradually being sifted out”. Later both he and Lenin would admit it was a serious mistake.
On 23 March Lenin sent a wireless message to Bela Kun: “Please inform us what real guarantees you have that the new Hungarian Government will actually be a communist, and not simply a socialist, government, i.e., a socialist-traitor one. Have the Communists a majority in the government? When will the Congress of Soviets take place? What does the socialists’ recognition of the dictatorship of the proletariat really amount to?”
Our report examined the role of the right and centre Social-Democrats, who continually attempted to weaken revolutionary activity using so‑called “proletarian humanism” as their alibi. Continually clashing with the communists, and the few Social-Democrats on the left, they dithered and prevaricated but always ended up on the side of the exploiting class.
The unions had considerable weight but were closely connected to the Social-Democratic PDSU, to the extent that anyone who joined a union automatically became a member of the PDSU. On the role of the unions and the PDSU the comrade referred to a number of other important facts.
From another wireless message, sent from Budapest to Moscow: “the Hungarian proletariat, after conquering power by fighting the common enemy, international capitalist imperialism, continues to deploy its forces with a view to achieving the victory of the international proletariat (…) We announce our adherence to the First Congress of the 3rd International. We have power firmly in our hands (…) In these last days we managed to take power without blood being spilled, but now we are menaced by the imperialists of the Entente. Faced with this impending danger, the entire Hungarian working class has lined up on the side of the dictatorship of the proletariat”.
From Kun’s speech to the Party’s national Congress on 12 and 13 June:
“On the political level we need to manage the dictatorship in a consistent way. We are divesting the bourgeoisie of the means whereby they could re‑establish their oppression over the proletariat, depriving them of the means to recreate a machinery of physical and moral coercion of their own that would allow them to restore capitalism and block the course of socialist development. This is the essence of the dictatorship of the proletariat. And it is therefore, like the bourgeois State which preceded it, an apparatus of oppression. But it differs from it in terms of its objectives, since this instrument of oppression isn’t dedicated to the conservation of power, but has the task of getting rid of oppression altogether and all power (…) The coherent and resolute enacting of the dictatorship, and the duty to promote it by all means, are the responsibility of the revolutionary labour party (…) Any hesitation is tantamount to a softening of the dictatorship’s authority, and would involve an unnecessary spilling of proletarian blood (…) If we want a bloodless revolution, involving a minimum of sacrifice, and for it to be – even if we do not recognize a so‑called “humanity” set above classes – as humane a revolution as possible, then we must ensure that the exercise of the dictatorship is as strong and energetic as possible. This is the only way that the spilling of proletarian blood can be avoided (…)
“We cannot miss out any of the steps in this development, we can only shorten its phases”.
Kun continues, adding as regards the programme:
“The aim of our revolutionary activity is to contribute to the outbreak of the world revolution. This the Party of the communist workers of Hungary can only achieve only if it fights shoulder to shoulder with the proletariat of other countries, if it forms a united front with all the proletarian parties that have subscribed to the aim of preparing for the world revolution. The principal duty of our party consists in favouring the international revolution by offering the propaganda of an example”.
A few days after the proclamation of the Council Republic the order for the establishment of the Red Army was issued by the Governing Council. Reliable communists with experience acquired in the Russian Revolution were elected as People’s commissars for defence. After only five weeks the Council Government was inspecting the armed workers’ battalions, recruited from Budapest’s factories, as they processed down the Viale Andrássy.
Along with the Red Army a Red Guard was organized, to secure the proletarian order on the home front. Revolutionary tribunals were set up as well, to pass judgement on those carrying out counter-revolutionary activity, both inside and outside Hungary.
Simultaneously with the destruction of capitalism’s political organs of oppression, the first set of economic reforms, with a view to eventual collectivization, were enacted: factories and banks in the hands of the proletariat; 8 hour working day for adults and 6 for young people, standardization of salaries; paid holidays; the country residences of the big landowners transferred to the Peasant Councils; nationalization of the land. Education was free for workers’ children. Prostitution was prohibited. With the expropriation of rented properties, tens of thousands of proletarian families no longer had to pay rent.
Bela Szanto’s description of some other measures taken by the Proletarian dictatorship was then cited:
“The Council dictatorship equalized wages within trades and crafts (..) women workers received the same as their male counterparts (…)
“In charge of the factories were the Factory Councils, which, with the Factory Commissars, managed them in agreement with the Council of Popular Economy and with the unions”.
Resistance from the bosses had been weak and was easily broken. In Budapest there were 500 workers’ councils. Each nominated a commissar of production who replaced the workshop manager, but in some cases this office was entrusted to the owner himself. Workshops with less than 20 workers were excluded from this socialization programme.
“I willingly align myself with the other proposal, which is of an economic nature: not to touch the small businesses, not to expropriate them, neither in a dictatorial way nor through public institutions; I am also adopting the proposed amendment concerning the small landed proprietors” (Kun).
Factories producing the same products were centralized into one group. There was an attempt to organize production in the best way possible; technicians were paid a higher salary.
Councils were created in all kinds of industries. One delegate from each council went to make up the Central Council of Production, in which was found, as well as the representatives of every trade from all industries, the Commissar of Social Production elected by the Government. Along with the control of production, there was also control over the sale of what was produced.
As for the dividing up of raw materials, all orders went through the Central Council of Production, which distributed them to the workshops best equipped to carry them out.
In the villages, managers had been trained who were allocated the task of organizing agricultural production. The Council Government expropriated the large estates but did not divide them up among the peasants, wishing to bring them under State management straightaway. It was an impetuous step: in most cases the management of the farms would remain in the hands of the ex‑proprietors’ land agents, who were difficult to replace from a technical point of view. There was an attempt to find a remedy for this by nominating commissars in agricultural production, but despite their political reliability, they had no experience of managing large farms. Kun writes that it would have taken time to train up the most capable of the poor peasants in the technical knowledge required to run a large farm.
On the other hand the resources needed to run hundreds of thousands of small farms (ploughs, harrows, horses, etc.) were severely lacking.
We then considered the complex military situation. On 19 April there was a meeting of the Central Revolutionary Council of the Workers and Soldiers of Budapest. Kun again: “Beyond the Hungarian Council Republic two world currents are about to collide: imperialist capitalism against Bolshevik socialism. We are part of that struggle”.
On 4 April the Entente proposed a new line of demarcation and a neutral zone. The government of the Council Republic didn’t agree to it and put forward the counter-proposal of the convocation ofg a conference of representatives from Austria, Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia, Rumania and Hungarian Council Republic to determine the new borders.
From the declaration of 4 April: “The doctrine of national integrity is not ours, but we want to survive, and for this reason we have not agreed to pull back from the line of demarcation. We don’t want our proletarian brothers in the neutral zone region, who have been liberated, to be cast back under the yoke of capitalism; this would mean, in fact, depriving the proletariat of Hungary of the physical means of maintaining their existence. The boyards of Rumania have launched their offensive. It is clearly an international class struggle, between international revolution, and international counter-revolution”.
The Red Army blamed inexperience and lack of equipment. What is more “the troops of the Russian Soviet Republic have violated the frontiers of Eastern Galicia, a part of which is already advancing towards Černovcy; but help is still a long way off”.
The report concluded here, but further chapters in this ongoing study of the Hungarian revolution will be presented at future Party meetings.
The previous part having been dedicated to the secondary mode of production, the speaker paused to consider the reasons for the decline of slavery and the transition to feudalism. The socio-economic reasons for the collapse of the Roman Empire were analysed, using the long citation from Engel’s unsurpassable The Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State which begins: “The Roman State had become an immense complicated machine, designed exclusively for the exploitation of its subjects”.
Hence the Marxist thesis according to which at a certain point in their development the relations of production are transformed into a brake on the progress of the productive forces.
The collapse of the State and its vital ganglia, constituted by the great citiesdistributed through its immense territory, prompted an increasing ruralisation of social relations. Primacy now passed to the single, self-sufficient rural productive unit.
The common land exists side by side with private property in parcels of land. The community, although having an economic existence of its own in the common terrain, exists only as an assembly, and the common land is utilized by each individual producer insofar as he is a proprietor of his own plot of land.
In the German variant, where single heads of families set up their own households, separated by long distances, the community appears as a union of non‑united, autonomous subjects; the community has no existence as a State, because it has no existence as a city. If the community is to enter upon real existence, the free landowners must hold an assembly; whereas, e.g., in Rome it exists apart from such assemblies, in the presence of the city itself and the officials placed at its head, paid by the treasury.
The final form of the secondary form of production celebrates the victory of private property with regard to communal property. Whereas in the Asiatic variant there is no individual property but only individual possession; whereas in the ancient classical variant the antithetical forms of private and public landed property continue to exist, in the German variant the ager publicus is at the service of the individual proprietors.
The Germans up to the time of Caesar are organised in gentes which hold all the means of production in common. But when productivity reaches the stage where each individual productive unit is producing more than it needs, and production for exchange becomes an imperative, the ancient communal ties break down and private property arises as an economic requirement, with the family interest coming to predominate over that of the community.
The comrade gave a brief description of the penetration of the “barbarians” into the dying Roman Empire: however, conquerors are obliged to acquire the social progress of the vanquished, and the organs of the gentile constitution soon change into the organs of State power and the military leader becomes a monarch. The old military hierarchy wasn’t able to replace the complex Roman legal superstructures and had to rely on the indigenous nobility. It is from this mixing of German and Latin elements that the Romano-barbaric kings would originate. The breaking up of the large estates under the Romans at this point ends, and the opposite process of concentration of the land in the hands of lords gets underway, from which serf relations would develop.
After giving an explanation of the three variants of slavery and their respective distinctive traits, the speaker went on to analyse the origins of feudalism, which was slowly eroding previous social relations and paving the way, in the centuries that followed, for the subsequent mode of production. If on the one hand the collapse of the powerful unity of the Roman State had freed individual landed proprietors from the weight of what had become unsustainable fiscal burdens, on the other hand it exposed them to continual sackings and devastations: the only solution was to relinquish a part of their liberty to the local lords in exchange for military protection.
Slowly the communal land was taken from the peasant farmers by the lords; to access it they now had to provide surplus labour, only to later become, as a class of serfs, simple appendages of land that no longer belonged to them: a form of production characterized as an “alliance” between the small, isolated producer and the chivalrous great nobility.
After a phase characterised by a demographic slump, by a deterioration in communications, with a consequent isolation of the various productive centres and a return to a “natural” economy in which agriculture and crafts went back to be associated with each other again, there would occur, around the year 1000, an economic-demographic revival which would allow a surplus product to be accumulated which could be assigned to developing new sectors of production.
To the agricultural worker was given a plot large enough to sustain himself and his family on its produce, for which he was obliged to work for the lord on his much larger holding.
This mode of production will be characterized by a contradictory process which will give rise to two relations: on the one hand of lords and serfs, and on the other craftsmen and merchants, whose evolution will proceed in distinct spheres. The antagonism between town and country will become more acute. It is in the towns that the germ of capitalism really establishes itself, with its tendency to universalize social relations. To the feudalism in the countryside there corresponded guild organization in the towns. Industry begins to detach itself from agriculture, products become out of necessity commodities with the creation of a social strata, the merchants, who insert themselves as the link between the various isolated producers.
However, despite handicraft production being from the outset dependent on the market, the production of use values is its aim; the way it produces is not typical of capitalism. The craftsman is not free buy means of production and labour power indiscriminately because the guild sets a limit on the quantity of means of production he can deploy.
The variety of goods issuing from the manufactories increases the circulation of money; soon the nobility is in debt; services in kind are progressively replaced with cash payments, a first step towards the abolition of serfdom is made.
The difference between slavery and feudalism is particularly apparent within the handicrafts, where individual private property is extended into means of labour. This process occurs alongside a greater division of labour, that is, with a greater division of society into classes and a corresponding development of the productive forces.
The towns are like associations to protect property. At the bottom of the social scale we find a formless and disorganized mass. One rung up there are the apprentices, organized in a way that best responds to the interests of the masters. And whereas the plebs take things as far as mounting revolts against the town authorities as whole, which however remain ineffective due to its impotence in the workplace, the apprentices only achieve small rebellions within individual corporations.
It will be the dissolvent power of money that will undermine this system of closed orders. Slowly the process of accumulation will get underway. On the one side a growing mass of commodities, on the other a concentration of wealth among a decreasing number of proprietors, derived mainly from usury and commercial profit.
It is possible to transform this money into industrial capital only when this monetary wealth can be exchanged with the objective conditions of labour, and this can happen only when these have been detached from labour in the historical process of the expropriation of the producers.
In conclusion the comrade read a long citation from the first volume of Capital that testifies to the bloody process of dissolving the tertiary form and to the rebellions of the producers: many would prefer the gallows to being kept prisoner in a workshop.
The exposition of the superstructural aspects of the tertiary form was not presented at the general meeting but will be published in our review, Comunismo.
The stance taken by the newly formed Communist Party of Italy on the terrain of its secret, clandestine organization was also extremely strict and serious, although the same couldn’t always be said of the International itself.
On 7 November 1921 the E.C. of the P.C.d’I wrote to the International to complain that in one of its press organs articles had been published which clearly contradicted the party’s positions, based solely on the word of one individual who was passing himself off as an Italian Communist. In the same letter the Party’s E.C. gave a clear and detailed account of the genesis, purpose and aims of the Arditi del Popolo organization, which it characterised as caught up in the struggle between the warring bourgeois parties, and giving that as the reason why the Party Executive had ordered communists not to join such an organization.
In reply the International condemned the position taken by the P.C. d’I and came to conclusions that didn’t correspond with reality: the Arditi del Popolo were described as a mass proletarian organization which was spontaneously rebelling against fascist terrorism; therefore the P.C. d’I should enter it and take it over and, if objectives were set which couldn’t be reconciled with those of the party, communists could leave then.
This has been covered in some detail in previous meetings and the reports on the subject will be published in full. It is true that the duty of the revolutionary party is to influence and win over ever broader strata of the proletarian class, but the United Front is not a general tactic that can be applied mechanically in all fields because if misapplied, rather than marking a step forward, it can provoke defeats and reversals. If the struggle between opposing tendencies is logical and useful inside the trade union, and a cause of paralysis inside the party, it becomes completely inadmissible within an organisation of a military type, where the maximum level of agreement, discipline and centralization is required.
For the party constituted in Livorno in 1921 the need was not to rush off and ‘make’ the revolution, but to prepare the conditions for the victory of communism. Thus: rejection of unity between parties and between deployments of troops, maximum commitment to unity between the economic organizations. And it will be this unitary movement which will set the proletariat on the path of revolution. Political leadership and military leadership are the prerogative of the party alone.
In pursuit of this goal the P.C. d’I, since the summer of 1921, had been calling for a general action against the bosses’ offensive. The campaign conducted by the Communist Trade Unions Committee was welcomed by the proletarian masses despite it being controlled by other parties. The value of the Alleanza del Lavoro lay not in the declarations of the various parties, but in its acceptance and expression of a rapidly maturing need to mobilize. The proletariat understood the value of the slogan which the Communists launched in all the workers’ assemblies, that joint mobilization was the only possible way to mount an effective resistance to the bosses.
Sindacato Rosso, our trade union paper, was proud to be able to write: “This extremely important fact shows how our Party, through the very development of things, has become the centre towards which the masses are converging, and also that it is the only party of the working class. In fact, while all the other parties and political and trade union groupings are only interested in keeping the proletariat divided because they fear that its fusion will deprive them of power, the Communist Party sees in the organic realization of the united front the best grounds for its consolidation and growth. Its party interest tallies perfectly with that of the labouring masses” (25 February 1922).
The report evidenced how the union big wigs, having grudgingly consented to set up the Alliance under pressure from the proletariat, immediately attempted, along with the social democrats, to use it for purely parliamentary ends. Meanwhile the communist directives, giving a contrary message, were winning over the proletarian masses in ever greater numbers.
Both the socialists in the CGL and the anarcho-syndicalists in the Railwaymen’s union expelled the communists in order to prevent P.C. d’I hegemony over the Italian proletariat.
Finally it got to the stage where a general strike was called. A major collision, a frightening prospect for the bourgeois class and its fascist henchmen, was now in the offing. On the second day of the strike it would continue to spread and win support from the working class. But on the third day, just as the strikers were gaining the upper hand, the action was called off by the majority parties in the Alleanza del Lavoro.
The Communist Party denied that the strike had been a failure. It had been a valuable experience, and gave renewed faith in generalized class action. “No peaceable, law‑abiding strike, this, lost in the daydream that the proletariat can save itself from reaction by means of a diversionary parliament; but a strike which took the struggle forward on advanced positions and fought to continually improve its political and military organization” (Il Comunista, 4 August 1922).
It tested how well prepared the Communist contingents, including on the military level, were, and how well they responded to the massive combativeness of the masses, and this, if the sabotage of the Social Democrats had been defeated, might have ensured victory.
Serious preparation for the strike involved having an adequate military defence organization. Only the Communist party was thus equipped. The working masses would launch some truly stupendous defensive actions, and in Milan, Bari, Ancona, Genoa, Parma, etc, real battles would take place, some ending in victory.
But the trade union executives, reluctantly involved in the united front, were still able to break it, and managed to salvage the inter-classist policy they had themselves imposed. The union leaders, reformists and so‑called revolutionaries alike, dragged the entire proletariat behind their defeatist methods and doctrines, leaving it powerless to fight against the fascist squads.
And before the last shots had been fired, they had already started to follow a new strategy, based on a truce with fascism and the fusion of the red unions with the so‑called “national” unions. The first act in this subsequent betrayal was consumated by the Railwaymens’ union, followed by the UIL (Italian Labour Union) and the Confederal unions, who broke the proletarian united front by proclaiming the dissolution of the Alleanza del Lavoro.
The report then paused to discuss the appeal launched by the Communist Trade Union Committees for the re‑establishment of the class unions, via the common action of all the left‑wing members of the trade unions. The initiative did not have the aim of forming a “Left union front”, least of all a breaking away from the trade union organizations of all of its left‑wing members. Its aim was rather to reach an understanding on keeping the united front as it emerged from the Alleanza del Lavoro intact, even if reorganized in a constitution better suited to its tasks.
At a special meeting at the beginning of October, unanimous approval was given both to a clearly classist motion and an agenda proposed by communist comrades, which workers belonging to the trade union left wings were instructed to present and to support in all trade union meetings.
On the 28 October the fascists had started mobilising for the March on Rome. The next day the Communist Trade Union Committee launched the proposal to reconstitute the Alleanza del Lavoro and for an immediate proclamation of a national general strike.
Mussolini himself admitted that even a small general strike could have constituted a major hindrance. But he had dependable friends who wouldn’t let him down, i.e. the social-reformists, who opposed mobilization of any kind. The maximalists, anarchists and republicans were no better. They also nurtured hopes of getting their own direct deals with fascism.
After the farce of the March on Rome, with substantial support from all of the economic and political powers, the King called on Mussolini to form a new government.
Even if only in passing the report felt duty bound to mention the shabby intrigues of those days, the hand-shaking and back-stabbing that went on between Giolitti, Nitti, Salandra, D’Annunzio, Mussolini, Turati and Giardino and co, to obtain a place in the new government.
In not much greater detail was described the buffoonery of the so‑called March of the fascist militias: hungry and dispersed throughout the countryside they were fed by the army, which had been sent to transport them to Rome in special trains. But only after Mussolini had been nominated as President of the new government. Not without reason did we declare, from the very beginning, that what we were dealing with was neither a revolution nor a coup d’etat, buta farce.
Parliament proved us right on 17 November when 306 votes out of a possible 422 expressed confidence in the Mussolini government,. The fascist deputies were 37 in all, and their nationalist allies added another 20, so all the other votes were cast by the various democratic parties and groups, amongst which can be counted such illustrious champions of legality as Giovanni Giolitti, Vittorio Emanuele Orlando, Alcide De Gasperi, Giovanni Gronchi, Ivanoe Bonomi, etc, etc. Not really that shocking, if you consider that they were bourgeois and giving support to a bourgeois government.
The real rats were instead the social reformists, commencing with leader of the CGL and parliamentary deputy Gino Baldesi, who declared himself ready to enter and be part the Mussolini government.
The pro‑fascist stance of the leaders of the big trade union confederations would not change over the ensuing years, before or after the murder of the socialist Deputy Matteotti, at which time the CGL called on “the confederated organisations, leaders and working masses to remain calm, so as not to compromise future developments with individual, ill‑advised initiatives”.
Among the first acts of the Mussolini government was a ferocious campaign of both legal and illegal repression, unleashing a series of programmed massacres and mass arrests of (mainly communist) proletarians, who were accused of plotting against the State. The Turin massacre in December, in which 11 proletarians were killed and about thirty wounded, is but one example.
But the organization which the bourgeoisie wanted most to eradicate was the Communist Party. This made the situation for the party very difficult, but not for that did the Italian communists consider themselves defeated. Fascism in government, and all that entailed, came as no surprise to the Party. From the day the Party was formed most of its activity had been carried out illegally in any case, and for a long time it had been prepared to go totally underground. The report gave a series of examples of the Party’s secret, illegal activity, and how it was able to avoid police surveillance; the publication of its newspapers, the activity of its squads, the holding of mass meetings on the anniversary of the Russian Revolution, etc.
All of the other so‑called proletarian parties, on the other hand, gave abundant evidence of cowardice and betrayal (the social democrats), or of their absolute impotence when it came to any kind of revolutionary activity (anarchists, syndicalists and maximalists).
The report concluded with a bitter observation on how the policy imposed by the Communist International, which insisted on the foundation of an unachievable social-communist party by merging with the maximalists, would discredit the old leadership before the Italian proletariat and contribute in no small part to sabotaging its work.
The report addressed the characteristics of the structure and functioning of Lenin’s party as constituted around the time of the 2nd Congress of the RSDLP in 1903; characteristics which feature prominently in the preparatory texts, the basic ones being, What is to Be Done?, and One Step Forward, Two Steps Back. The intention of our report is to demonstrate how, setting out from the same Marxist program and doctrine, Lenin and the Italian Left would anticipate and then bring into being the same type of party, their modus operandi being organic centralism, even if Lenin did not use the term (although the adjective “organic” shows up here and there in his writings).
The speaker gave some examples of falsifications, concealed within servile and hypocritical tributes to the greatness of Lenin, in which he was represented as an “innovator”, whereas he always remained totally committed to the invariant doctrine of Marx.
It is precisely against the “free criticism” and “interpretation” Marxism that What is to be Done? is aimed, with its opening passages rejecting the “bastard corrections, diffuse and opportunistic” of the revisionists of the time, anticipating the critique of Stalinism that would later be at the center of the Left’s work following Lenin’s death. Therefore, Lenin never hesitates to support with quotations from Marx and Engel the positions which he defends, from his earliest writings, inside and outside the party, and regarding the latter not only during the period of its formation and constitution, but throughout the course of his entire revolutionary battle: just read State and Revolution.
In the course of scrolling through Lenin’s texts, the report highlighted many aspects of his understanding of the party which coincide with our method, which from 1922 onwards we defined as “organic centralism”. For instance, the refusal to hurry the work or to seek easy fixes to get results: we, like him, are for following more difficult and laborious paths, we do not try, like the bourgeois, to obtain maximum profit with minimum investment.
From the report there also emerges a common vision regarding the relationship between party and class, on how to best evaluate spontaneous political activism, an extremely important embryonic form of consciousness but not one which determines the party’s stance, except via a complex relationship of reciprocal influence. Consciousness is brought into the class from the outside, by the party equipped with the right tools; the proletariat can at best attain “trade unionist” consciousness.
Lenin clarifies the role of consciousness and will in the unfolding of history: the party is a product of the history of class struggle, but must also play a part in it, according to a mechanism that the Left would call “reversal of praxis”. The dialectical relationship lies in the fact that inasmuch as the revolutionary party is a conscious and voluntary factor in events, so it is also a result of them and of the conflict they contain between the old forms of production and the new productive forces. The party would fail to perform this function if the material links between it and the social environment and class struggle were interrupted.
Another fundamental issue which Lenin never fails to address is the need for theory, and the program and tactics which flow from it, to be frequently reaffirmed inside the party through its publications and its periodic meetings, in which the degree to which they have been refined, or ‘sculpted’ as we tend to say, can be set out in such a way that the entire organization remains persuaded of their validity. A long‑held notion of ours is that a genuinely robust party is one in which its militants, in a given situation, all act in the same way, even if deprived of the possibility of communicating with one another and with the Centre. This was what Lenin was aiming for, even though he often had to intervene, sometimes on his own, in situations where his comrades had lost their bearings.
For Lenin, as for the Left, the party must be composed of “professional revolutionaries”, genuine, well‑disciplined militants, a vanguard rooted in the class and able to direct it: these are the members of the party according to Lenin; not chatty intellectuals in the bourgeois way, self‑obsessed revolutionary followers of fashion who participate in the movement when they feel like it and who “go to meetings on free evenings”, but rather those who make it a life choice.
The party not only elaborates a program and the tactics with which to bring it to fruition, but directs its attention to its mode of functioning. In every situation, even fortuitous ones, Lenin fights against opportunism in matters of organization as well.
Another important issue addressed at the meeting was the significance of “internal democracy” to Lenin. In Lenin’s party the democratic mechanism was used to keep it together, given the movement’s relative immaturity, but it was never considered a “sovereign” principle from which the right tactical choices could be derived.
“Only abroad, where very often people with no opportunity for conducting really active work gather, could this “playing at democracy” develop here and there, especially in small groups”. “The only serious organizational principle for the active workers of our movement should be the strictest secrecy, the strictest selection of members, and the training of professional revolutionaries. With these qualities, we would have something more than “democratism”, namely: complete, comradely, mutual confidence among revolutionaries”. “Take all this into consideration and you will realize that this talk and these resolutions about “anti-democratic tendencies” have the musty odor of the playing at generals which is indulged in abroad”.
Although Lenin operated in an age and an environment in which the democratic mechanism had to be used in the party due to the insufficient definition of its tactical orientation, Lenin, basing his view also on a critical evaluation of the mechanisms of functioning of the socialist parties, aligned himself with the same mode of party existence which we define today as “organic” and “centralist”.
But if centralism and organizational discipline are the condition for the existence of the communist party, such a condition cannot be obtained using the mechanisms of the bourgeois parties. Even in the way it functions the working class party is forced to be revolutionary. From the start the party’s new mode of being would be fully applied by the comrades of the Left in the Italian Communist Party of the 3rd International
But a clear disdain for the democratic method, when it becomes a “plaything” used by the opportunists to impede the activity of the party, is already evident in Lenin’s writings. Because the functioning of the party is presented by Lenin as that of an organism, in which the comrade finds himself in the role best suited to him.
As for us, strengthened by the experience of further decades of counterrevolution and betrayal by self‑styled “Leninists”, we have rid the party of the very word ‘democracy’. In the party it is a tradition to state the paradox that democracy might have some meaning if, along with the living, the dead and the unborn could also “vote”, an idea this which was explicitly anticipated by Lenin.
To the Skeptics request to provide “guarantees” that the party led thus, without “democracy”, would not abandon its principles we have replied many times, for example in the Dialogato con i morti, 1956: “We will just recall the guarantees proposed so many times before. Doctrine: the center has no authority to change it from that established, at the beginning, in the classical texts of the movement. Organization: one international organization, it does not alter through aggregations or mergers but only via individual admissions; those organized cannot belong to other movements. Tactics: provision should be made for possible maneuvers and actions at international congresses within a closed system. The base cannot initiate actions not approved by the center: the center cannot invent new tactics and moves, under the pretext of new facts. The link between the party base and the center takes a dialectical form. If the party exercises the class dictatorship in the State, and against those classes against which the State must act, there is no dictatorship of the center of the party over the base. The dictatorship is not negated by formal internal mechanical democracy, but by respecting those dialectical ties”.
Finally, the report addressed the importance of a central press organ. It seemed clear that for Lenin an all Russia newspaper coincided with the concept we have today of the party center; he talks about a newspaper, but from what he says it soon appears that in the structure of the press organ he sees the leading center of the party; because the fundamental and urgent need is for an orthodox Marxist party, with a solid theoretical foundation, shared by the entire organization, achieved by means of an organ that all militants read and trust, and from which they draw material for propaganda purposes.
On the importance of a disciplined and centralized organization, he concludes in One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: “In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organization. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labor for capital, constantly thrust back to the ‘lower depths’ of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organization, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class. Neither the senile rule of the Russian autocracy nor the senescent rule of international capital will be able to withstand this army. It will more and more firmly close its ranks, in spite of all zigzags and backward steps, in spite of the opportunist phrase- mongering of the Girondists of present‑day Social-Democracy, in spite of the self-satisfied exaltation of the retrograde circle spirit, and in spite of the tinsel and fuss of intellectualist anarchism”.
In France in 1846 there was a serious economic crisis in which the remnants of pre‑capitalist economy, bad crop failures and potato blight, resulted in a crisis, inevitably also financial, of modern capitalism. In 1847 the constitutional opposition agitated at banquets for an electoral reform, which were soon overshadowed by the demands of the workers. On 22 February 1848 a number of armouries in Paris were attacked. On the 24th 200 lay dead on the 1,500 plus barricades. A provisional government was then installed chaired by the conservative republican Dupont de L’Eure, with Ledru‑Rollin, of the Réforme party, appointed minister of the Interior, included because it was useful to have someone who enjoyed the confidence of the revolutionaries. The only socialists in this government were Louis Blanc and the worker ‘Albert’, but only as ministers without portfolio.
As of February there arose over 100 clubs in Paris alone. Among the most important was the Central Republican Society, created by Blanqui, who had just arrived in Paris.
A proposal for new elections was immediately opposed by Blanqui, showing he had no faith in universal suffrage, which would have led inevitably to the victory of reaction among a people brutalized by decades of propaganda from the bourgeoisie, clerics and notables.
On 14 March, in response to an invitation from the Central Republican Society, 15 societies united under a Central Committee, to which around 300 workers’ organizations subscribed. The provisional government organized a demonstration of 30,000 bourgeois national guards, to which 200,000 republicans, proletarian and non‑proletarian, responded with their own demonstration.
On 16 April a demonstration organized by Ledru‑Rollin mobilised 40 to 50, 000 men of the National Guard against a non‑existent communist plot. The worker demonstrators who attended the march, unarmed, were dispersed to cries of “Death to the communists! Death to Blanqui! Death to Cabet!”. In a statement from Blanqui’s Club, dated 16 April, we read that the lesson to be drawn was not to take to the streets unarmed, and that the Central Republican Society, given the repression, needed to organize itself on the basis of the old secret societies.
On 23 April the National Guard opened fire on a workers’ demonstration in Rouen. On the following day the army used artillery killing 34 workers with many others wounded or arrested. Some club sections prepared for armed struggle. Blanqui was opposed to these actions and considered them unjustified, given the balance of forces.
On May 4 the Republic was born. On the 6th Raspail proposed a demonstration in support of Poland. Organizing it was entrusted to Hubert who set the date for 15 May. Blanqui immediately suspected Police provocation. But the Central Republican Society decided by a large majority to go ahead with the demonstration; Blanqui, though he didn’t agree with it, accepted the decision, writing of it many years later: “So I gave in. You don’t command the popular masses as though they were a regiment”.
Police officials, disguised as workers, incited them to push their way into the National Assembly. The historian Danvier writes: “Two hours later the Hotel de Ville was surrounded by thousands of National Guards (…) In the evening many of the leftwing leaders were already in prison. Blanqui, who hadn’t taken part in the Farce of the Hotel de Ville was arrested on 26 May”. On the 22nd the Central Republican Society was dissolved, and on 7 June the National Assembly passed a law forbidding all non‑authorized meetings.
On 23 June the insurrection broke out, without a common plan. Cavaignac, to whom the Assembly had handed executive power, initially allowed it to spread before unleashing a bloody and brutal repression. The insurgents were massacred in their thousands. Of the 15,000 prisoners 5,000 deported to Algeria. In September, Blanqui issued a proclamation from his prison cell addressed to the small and middle bourgeoisie, inviting them to ally with the proletariat: we are in 1848, and we can’t blame him for that. Moreover, the intention of the proletariat and its leaders was that the direction of this momentary alliance would remain in its hands. What was being proposed here, even if in an approximate manner, was the far from simple question of the double revolution.
In December 1848, in the elections for the president of the Republic, the petty-bourgeois candidature of Ledru‑Rollin was opposed by some revolutionary socialists who, on Blanqui’s advice, supported the clearly socialist candidature of Raspail. In these elections it would be the first time that the proletariat clearly separated itself from the democratic party.
Blanqui, condemned to 10 years in prison, would write in 1851: “It is necessary to proceed immediately: 1. To the general disarmament of the bourgeois guards; 2. To the armament and organization of all workers in a national militia (…) Not one gun must remain in the hands of the bourgeoisie”.
In June 1852 he wrote: “You say you are revolutionary republican. You, who are neither revolutionary and maybe not even republican assume this title in opposition to that of socialist. You say I am neither bourgeois, nor proletarian, but a democrat. So what is a democrat? We have here a word that is vague, banal, without a precise meaning, an elastic word. Is there any opinion which couldn’t find refuge under this insignia? Everyone says they are a democrat, especially the aristocrats. Nobody wants the two camps to call themselves by their true names: proletariat and bourgeoisie. But there are not others”.
But Blanqui, without actually spurning theory, considered it as secondary with respect to action. If on the one hand his wish to avoid useless discussions between the various schools was commendable, on the other it is clear that his grasp of dialectics, which was rudimentary rather than non‑existent, didn’t allow him to see the connection between theory and practice. His healthy materialism was lacking in science and dialectics.
Blanqui is again arrested and condemned in June 1861, this time to four years in prison. On 27 August 1865 he escapes. In 1866 he is in Geneva where the first congress of the International is due to be held: he gives the order not to participate. Given the police repression the formation of secret groups of ten members is decided upon. Their membership amounts to around 2,500 men.
Writing in 1867, Blanqui thunders against co‑operation and Proudhonian slogans, sensing the danger of a workers’ aristocracy forming, and siding with the class enemy.
In the same writing we read: “under the present political conditions a mutual assistance society would be useful to workers for safeguarding the rights of labour and resisting capital. The labourer, with the union’s strength, is no longer subject to the will of those who have dominated him for so long, is able to stop the devaluation of wages, can keep exploitation in check, and discuss working conditions instead of having to put up with them”. Blanqui’s ideas about the unions and strikes are certainly valid: “the strike is the natural means, within the reach of everyone, in which everyone can take part. The strike is the only real people’s weapon in the struggle against the oppression of capital. Relying provisionally on the strike as defensive means against the oppression of capital, the popular masses must direct all their effort towards effecting political change; the only effort recognisably capable of carrying out a social transformation and the allocation of products in a just way”.
Blanqui’s meagre dialectic is nevertheless superior to that of many of those today who declare themselves to be Marxist and communist.
The Franco-Prussian War and the French defeat at Sedan on 2 September 1870 marked the end of Napoleon III and the Second Empire.
On 14 August a Blanquist insurrectional attempt obtained no support and came to nothing.
On 4 September Blanqui writes in his newspaper: “The provisional government is nothing but a pale imitation of the Empire. It fears revolution more than Prussia, and protects itself against Paris instead against Wilhelm. The word ‘Unity’ has become the weapon of war of all the enemies of liberty. The only enemies recognised by the Republic of 1870 are other republicans. It is being assisted by all those monarchists who shout: ‘Long live the Republic!’ ”.
On 31 October 1870 there would be another failed attempt to overthrow the government of national defence. For this Blanqui was arrested in March 1871, condemned to death and then to deportation in April 1872. He would not be released until June 1879. His newspaper in 1870 was called “The Country in Danger”. The inherent confusion within this title wasn’t only terminological. In the past Blanqui had opposed the mythicizing of the Jacobins and the Great Revolution, recognizing their limitations and the need to go beyond them. He didn’t however manage to do that entirely. For him, and for Robespierre, Babeuf and Buonarroti before him, Nation, Country, Republic and Revolution were synonyms. His position on the Commune isn’t wrong since the alliance attempted with the Parisian petty bourgeoisie had its guarantee in the armed proletariat, within an overall perspective, however confused, which was one of double revolution. Unfortunately his talk of country and nation sowed confusion within the proletarian ranks, precisely at a time when what was most necessary was a classist and internationalist line which broke with the elements of entrenched bourgeois thinking which the proletarians inevitably carried with them.
On 18 March 1871, when the Prussian troops occupied a part of the Parisian suburbs, a popular insurrection broke out, at whose head was set a Central Committee which called for an elected municipal assembly, with major powers: the Commune. On 26 March Blanqui, already under arrest, was elected member of the Commune, along with many of his supporters. The Commune tried to exchange all its hostages for Blanqui but nothing came of it: Thiers was well aware of the danger the old revolutionary represented.
If the Blanquists in the Commune made a lot of mistakes, it is likewise true that Vaillant and Eudes were convinced, from 18 March, of the necessity of marching on Versailles. Versailles troops entered the city on 21 May and on the 28 May the Commune was destroyed.
The report then moved on to consider the fully worked‑out conception of the dictatorship, which in the work of Engels, Marx and Lenin would free itself from Babeuf, Buonarotti and Blanqui and became part of a socialism which was finally based on historical, dialectical and scientific materialism; on a theory not imparted as a revelation by some divinity, but on one arising out of the history of mankind and from the study and analysis of that history using the materialist method.
Our theory, our programme, our party, came into being in 1848 with Marx and Engel’s Manifesto. And the same Marx and Engels, and later on Lenin, with their writings, studies and by their actions, would over the years continue the work of sculpting the programme.
Obviously opportunists, of the “right” and “left”, who consider themselves Marxists and sometimes even communists, have often professed their faith in Marxism, but, surprise, surprise, they reject the dictatorship of the proletariat.
In the Manifesto we read: “Formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the proletariat”. “We have already seen how the first step in the worker’s revolution is the raising of the proletariat to ruling class”. Formation of the proletariat into a class means the proletariat becomes a class “for itself” rather than just “in itself” only when it manages to express itself in its own party, the revolutionary, international Communist Party. Without it, its existence as a class is just as an economic category.
In the Manifesto we therefore find the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, even if not formulated in these words. But already in The Class Struggles in France of 1850 Marx talks about “dictatorship of the working class” and of “class dictatorship of the proletariat”.
In the 1877‑78 Anti‑Dühring Engels defines the State as “a particular repressive force” of one class against the others: “The proletariat seizes the State power, and transforms the means of production into State property. But in doing this, it puts an end to itself as the proletariat, it puts an end to all class differences and class antagonisms, it puts an end also to the State as a State (…) The State is not “abolished”, it withers away”.
On the one hand Engels debated with the Lassalleans and all those who, even within the party, cultivated the petty-bourgeois utopia of a State ‘Hegelianally’ above parties and factions; and on the other with the anarchists. Eventually Engel’s words would be appropriated and their original meaning overturned. The reformists turned “extinction” into gradualism and a renunciation of the toppling of the State, advocating reforms and parliamentary action which under a democratic regime would lead us to socialism without any jolts or upsets. Setting out from this premise the traitors of the Second International took the world proletariat not to socialism but to a fratricidal war, to the imperialist First World War. As for the anarchists they talk about “abolishing” the State, the bourgeois State – and on that we agree – but they also want to abolish the one which arises with and during the revolution due to the proletariat, whose instrument it is for the exercise of its dictatorship.
The anarchists are chronologically confused; they put at the beginning what is at the end. They think that a declaration, a decree, a stroke of the pen can act as substitute for a long and complex historical process.
As for parliamentarism, Marx writes: “The Commune was to be a working, not a parliamentary body, executive and legislative at the same time”. The communist party once it has taken power shares it with no‑one, the notion of the division of powers having become irrelevant: Montequieu is liquidated once and for all. Lenin wrote that the renegades “denounce all criticism of parliamentarism as “Anarchism”!! It is not surprising that the proletariat of the most “advanced” parliamentary countries (…) has been giving its sympathies more and more to Anarcho-syndicalism, in spite of the fact it is but the twin brother of opportunism”.
“Abolishing the bureaucracy at once, everywhere and completely, is out of the question. It is a utopia. But to smash the old bureaucratic machine at once and to begin immediately to construct a new one that will make possible the gradual abolition of all bureaucracy, this is not a utopia, it is the experience of the Commune, the direct and immediate task of the revolutionary proletariat…
We are not utopians, we do not “dream” of dispensing at once with all administration, with all subordination. These anarchist dreams, based upon incomprehension of the tasks of the proletarian dictatorship, are totally alien to Marxism, and, as a matter of fact, serve only to postpone the socialist revolution until people are different. No, we want the socialist revolution with people as they are now, with people who cannot dispense with subordination, control, and “foremen” and “accountants”. The subordination, however, must be to the armed vanguard of all the exploited and working people, i.e., to the proletariat”.
The report on trade union activity at the previous general meeting at the end of September focused on what we did to promote, within the various rank‑and‑file trade union organisations, an agitation directed towards the organisation of a unified general strike of all those within so‑called ‘conflictual’ [militant] trade unionism, including the left‑wing opposition currents in CGIL opposing the line of the leaders of these trade unions who planned two separate general strikes, in competition with one another and a few weeks apart, which is what eventually happened.
In reporting this activity we had got up to the aftermath of a national assembly held in Milan on September 23rd, a week before our general meeting, organized by one of the two sides within rank‑and‑file trade unionism, to promote their strike, which was to occur on October 27th.
All this was undertaken around a document in support of the unitary general strike entitled “Appeal for the Formation of a United Class Front of Trade Unions for a General Struggle of the Whole Working Class, in Defence of the Freedom to Strike”. This document was drafted by our comrades in collaboration with other trade union militants who were not members of our party, but who expressed in its entirety our orientation toward trade unions with regard to the issues addressed therein, confirming that our trade union positions can be accepted in the class in general, beyond the organizational boundaries of the party.
At the Milan Assembly on September 23, we spoke on behalf of the group of trade union militants who had come together around that Appeal, and reaffirmed its content.
Parallel to this, we organised a series of public conferences of the Party to highlight the fact that this is the policy of our Party, which is the only authentic and coherent supporter and implementer of this policy. We then held the conferences in Bologna, Florence, Rome, Genoa and Turin, with the title “For the Unification of the Struggles of the Working Class, For the United Class Union Front”.
The text of the Conference was published in the November-December 2017 and January-February 2018 issues of Il Partito Comunista, which the reader can find published in English in the July‑August issue of The Communist Party. It explains the correctness of the two approaches of “unification of the struggles of the working class” and of the “united class front of trade unions” on the trade union level, their mutual relationship, and how they fit in with the struggle and the political aims of the Party.
At the demonstrations for the two general strikes we distributed a leaflet entitled “For the Unification of the Struggles of the Working Class, For the United Class Union Front,” on October 27th, at the demonstrations in Milan, Bologna, Florence and Rome, and, in slightly modified form, on November 10th, at those in Genoa, Bologna and Florence. We also intervened with the same text at the demonstration in Rome promoted by the so‑called Eurostop Platform on Saturday, November 11th, along to which the leadership of the USB, which adheres to that political cartel, tried, with incorrect methods, to bring its members, although with poor results.
In addition, we have continued to follow the activities of the USB and SI Cobas in particular.
On October 9, 2017, we took part in the ILVA steelworks workers’ event, organized by Fiom, which was also attended by the Genoese USB a decision supported by our comrades. At this event, as was the case for the previous one on June 4, 2017, we intervened with a special leaflet (“Unite and Extend the Workers’ Struggle”).
With regard to SI Cobas, we have written a brief note about the strike promoted by the regime unions – CGIL (Confederazione Generale Italiana del Lavorlo), CISL (Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori), UIL (Unione Italiana del Lavoro), and UGL (Unione Generale del Lavoro) – at the huge logistics warehouse of the Amazon in Piacenza, on November 24, 2017 (“The Regime Unions at the Amazon Strike Trial”).
After the intense work carried out from September 2017 to January 2018, linked to the promotion of the Appeal in support of a united strike of rank‑and‑file unionism, the subsequent months were marked by a decline in the activity of the labor movement.
The comrade explained how actions aimed at the unity of action of militant and rank‑and‑file unionism had nevertheless taken place on the initiative of the various militants, although a national body had not yet been set up with the aim of coordinating them to give them greater strength.
Our comrades intervened, on Friday and Saturday, February 23rd and 24th, 2018, at two different national events held in Rome.
The first was a demonstration organized on the occasion of the national strike of school workers in the context of the mobilizations underway for months against the dismissal of thousands of temporary teachers. All the rank‑and‑file unions and also groups of teachers organized by the left‑wing minority current inside the CGIL, called “La Cgil che vogliamo [The CGIL We Want]”, had joined the strike. The mobilization cannot be said to have been organized in a unitary way, but was rather a coming together of various organizations in the face of a movement of workers that had expressed a certain vitality. A positive, but nevertheless limited, factor, as underlined in the leaflet specially prepared by our comrades for distribution at that demonstration: “Il fronte unico sindacale di classe” (“The United Class Union Front”), in Il Partito Comunista no. 388.
On the following day, Saturday, February 24th, there was instead a national demonstration organized by SI CoBas, part union, part party, in order to promote an “anti‑capitalist and anti‑electoral” front between political and trade union organizations. This initiative once again raised the issue of the relationship between trade union and political organizations, which in our opinion the SI CoBas leadership have formulated wrongly, a fact we have been highlighting since the very first congress of this union, as well as in the flyer distributed to the Roman demonstration: “The involvement of trade unions in single political or electoral fronts – even when they claim to be anti‑capitalist – is a step backwards, not forwards, on the road to unity of workers’ action and militant unionism, necessary and fundamental basis for the construction of a united class front of trade unions. The leadership of a union can legitimately declare that it belongs to a party and express its preference for a given front of parties, but it must not commit the union, its energies and its structures to support it, because it would thus open up divisions within the union, alienating those members who do not belong to that political party, and put obstacles in the way of other workers joining the union, who can easily perceive it as the instrument of a party rather than as an organization for the general defense of the class. A path that is opposed to that of the class trade union front may well be taken: that of a war between trade union‑party hybrids, which is what is happening today in rank‑and‑file trade unionism”.
The two leaflets distributed on February 23 and 24, 2017, in Rome, with an introduction giving our assessment of the general state of base unionism in Italy, have been translated and published in nos. 7‑8 of our English-language paper The Communist Party, in a section dedicated to rank‑and‑file trade unionism and the activity in it of our comrades (“Two General Strikes in Italy”). The translation of our article on the second congress of the USB (“The Second National Congress of the USB”) was also published, in two parts, in that same issue of our magazine in English, and in the subsequent one.
Among the promoters of the appeal, the idea developed – supported by our comrades – of establishing a permanent inter‑union group in support of unity of action between militant unionism and all workers. There was no response to this proposal in the short term, but in the summer of 2018 a situation which was similar, if not identical, to the previous one presented itself on the trade union scene. On the 17 July the same trade union cartel as last year – SI CoBas, CUB, SGB, USI‑AIT, SLAI CoBas – proclaimed a general strike of all categories of the working class to take place on 26 October. Subsequently ADL CoBas and the USSI merged. The difference compared to 2017 consisted in the fact that neither the USB nor the Cobas Confederation announced a general strike for autumn, thus actively bolstering the propaganda of the bourgeois right‑wing government.
Some of the militants promoting the appeal proposed a meeting to decide what to do. This was held in Florence on September 2, in the presence of about thirty union activists from the following organizations: CUB, SI CoBas, CoBas Sanità Università Ricerca (split from the CoBas Confederation since November 2017), CoBas Poste (member of the CoBas Confederation), USB, ORSA, and the left‑wing opposition in CGIL. Two action points emerged from the meeting: the drafting of a new Appeal for a general strike of militant unionism (understood to include the left‑wing opposition in the CGIL as well) and, after the strike, the organization of a national assembly said to be “self‑convened” – that is, organized by militants of the various unions and not by their leadership – in support of the unity of action of class unionism and workers.
It was therefore a first practical step towards what our comrades wanted the previous year, that is, the constitution of a permanent body that would promote and defend that line among the workers and within the trade unions.
With input from our comrades the new Appeal was drafted, dated October 1st.
addition to the foregoing, our comrade’s report discussed the work
carried out to give our trade union activity a unified and organic
direction on the international level. This is highlighted, in various
languages, in the party’s press organs, in which the most important
articles are shared and translated. In the non‑Italian press the
following have been translated and published: In the Spanish-language
paper, El Partido Comunista:
– “Por la unificacón de la clase trabajadora - Por el frente único sindical de clase”, the text of the address used at public conferences held in Turin, Genoa, Bologna, Florence and Rome. This describes the party’s line on the United Front of Class Unions, in the period between the two general strikes of rank‑and‑file trade unionism – separate and in competition – on October 27th and November 10th, 2017;
– “La lucha de los trabajadores portuarios: una peque muestra de la democracia burguesa israeli”, on the Israeli dockworkers’ strike.
the English-language paper, The Communist Party:
– “Class Struggles in Israeli Ports”, the Israeli dockworkers’ strike;
– “Strikes and the Situation in Brazil”, on the Brazilian truckers’ strike;
– “Report from the Second Congress of the USB”, our commentary on the second congress of the USB in Italy.
The comrades reported on the general situation in Latin America during 2017, and on the workers’ struggles.
In general inflation is continuing to rise and the economy is slowing down, resulting in a decrease in real wages and an increase in unemployment. There will be more and more reasons for wage earners to enter the struggle. But it is the petty bourgeoisie, which sees its living standard depressed and increasingly threatened, which is making the most noise.
The big bourgeoisie, through its variegated political representatives, of right and left, is putting a lot of effort into controlling the masses’ discontent and will continue to so so, using its well tested combination of parliamentary electoralism, populism and open repression.
The regime unions in every country throughout the continent, reflecting the different political positions of the parties present in the labor movement, are unanimous in their work as firefighters, subservient to the bosses and to the watchwords of increased production and productivity.
The intensification of the crisis of capital has led to a contraction in the profits of the national capitals and of those of the various imperialist powers, hungry for raw materials, which invest in the region: the USA, China, Russia, etc.
The measures adopted by each government to safeguard these bourgeois interests have increased the pressure on workers and pushed the base of some sectors of the workers’ movement to become active and prepare for the struggle. And the unions at times have had no choice but to take the lead in these struggles, but only in order to channel them in the direction of ‘labour peace’.
In other instances the workers’ struggle has been used to pursue electoral strategies and in disputes between the government and the opposition: in 2017 we recall the cases of Argentina, Brazil and Peru while in 2018 presidential elections will be held in Costa Rica, Paraguay, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Brazil. Even Cuba has announced that there will be a new president in 2018! In all cases, the bourgeoisie tries to mobilize the masses for any electoral solution that will allow them to continue their rule.
In Argentina, the Macri government granted in December a “Christmas bonus” of 2,200 pesos to workers of the “popular economy”, i.e., those on the minimum wage or enrolled in various assistance programs, and the so‑called Argentine left, which leads those workers’ union, called it a “conquest”. That “Macrism” and “Kirchnerism” are in agreement on diverting workers from struggle is very clear.
The so‑called pension reform, presented by the Macri government and approved by parliament with the agreement of the Peronist group of Kircherism, has robbed pensioners who will now have to pay contributions for a minimum of 30 years and retire at 70. This “reform” was rejected by the workers. In December, in the days before the passage of the law, unrest and workers’ protests multiplied. When the movement against the theft from pensioners became massive and the mobilization of Thursday 14, the first day of parliamentary debate, was being prepared, the General Confederation of Workers was forced to call a strike, but only “if the measure was approved”. In reality the CGT has only tried to stop the mobilization.
There was however a massive mobilization of workers: on Monday, December 18, over 150,000 workers filled the Plaza del Congresso and the surrounding streets, in many cases under the flags of unions that had called for the strike and mobilization. The CGT lined up instead with the Macri government’s call for a “popular consultation”, a referendum on the reform, thus boycotting the mobilization and the strike. The pension reform law ended up being passed but the government was forced to resort to open repression during the two days of struggle.
School workers have struggled for their demands throughout Latin and Central America. An important conflict took place in Peru in 2017, when teachers struggled for wage increases and improved working conditions.
Brazil has seen political upheavals and large‑scale workers’ mobilizations, but even here, despite protests against President Temer’s proposed Labor reform, the masses of workers have tailed the bourgeois factions.
In Chile the presidential elections were held and the new bourgeois government will give continuity to capitalist exploitation with the undeclared but effective help of the United Workers’ Center, controlled by the Communist Party of Chile. The dissatisfaction of the masses was brought back into the mainstream of bourgeois electoral democracy, although the objective conditions in Chile for the emergence of grassroots workers’ movements have strongly increased in the country; but the confusion and political disorientation caused by the various expressions of opportunism still lies heavily.
Presidential elections were also held in Honduras in 2017.
In Colombia, the peace agreement with the FARC, which became a legal political movement, has survived: from “armed reformism” to parliamentarism and electoral propaganda. In the last quarter of the year the Avianca pilots’ struggle took place, with a 51‑day strike.
In Mexico, in the industrial city of Cuernavaca Valley, workers in the Nissan automobile industry went on strike for four days, with a call for a wage increase, owing to the dramatic depreciation of wages due to inflation. The workers’ assembly did not listen to the calls for conciliation with the owner, and decided on the strike, expressed by the almost 4,000 workers. These received a slightly higher salary increase than the one provided by the government, the Nissan company and the union.
On October 10, the Mexican government, within the framework of privatization policies, closed down the State’s electricity company leaving 66,000 workers unemployed. The union appealed for struggle and solidarity, supporting opposition to the privatization of the company.
In Venezuela, although the ticking of the social time bomb is manifest, the lower classes are kept asleep by the electoral drug: from the presidential elections in May there came the expected result, the ratification of presidency to Nicolás Maduro.
The reformist, revisionist, bourgeois and petty-bourgeois currents always hide their interests under false socialist and even pseudo-revolutionary arguments, to confuse, deceive, divide and defeat the exploited class, sole engine of the proletarian revolution.
The international bourgeoisie has by now a long experience in skillfully conducting this maneuver, presenting to the working masses the false alternatives of a “right” and a “left” capitalism, with the latter supposedly fading into “socialism” and towards which discontent and aspiration for social change can be channeled. Within the farcical clash between “right” and “left”, between capitalism and “socialism”, between “revolution” and “imperialism”, there lies concealed what is actually happening: a clash between bourgeois fractions for government control, but all of them in defense of capitalism.
In the countryside ordinary people live in conditions of scarcity, spending every day looking for something to eat, especially those without a fixed salary and the unemployed, of whom there are already many and whose number is kept hidden by official disinformation.
The continual devaluation of wages does not allow workers to reconstitute their forces. In many regions of the country they cannot get to work due to the reduction of transport services or the increase in the price of tickets. This has caused suspensions or dismissals for absenteeism provided for in the labor legislation, both in the public and private sectors.
The cuts in the health sector have facilitated the reappearance of diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis, among others, which were considered under control. Shortage of medications is causing deaths. The elderly and workers’ children are the first victims.
For this reason many workers, even if they have a job, leave it, convinced that, in order to survive and feed the families, it is better to emigrate to any other country on the continent, fleeing from the “Socialism of the 21st century”.
But the bourgeoisies of the neighboring countries are only willing to accept the amount of labor they need.
For its part, in Venezuela the government started 2018 with the extension for the 13th time of the decree on the economic emergency, which allows exceptional measures to safeguard the interests of the capitalists and to repress workers’ struggles. Among these the suppression of controls on currency exchange, the introduction of a new currency, the liberalization of the prices of products and services, the adjustment of the price of petrol to international rates, an increase in taxes.
Meanwhile, the government is promoting the enrolment of civilian militiamen, subordinated to military commanders, on the pretext of having to prepare to defend the country against an invasion by USA and its regional allies.
Moreover, the bourgeois State still keeps workers immobilized by rationing increases to the minimum wage to three or four times a year, using patriotic pretexts.
Collective contracts have lost all their validity as a defense of working conditions, and any unrest is immediately criminalized or distorted by official propaganda, which brands it as a “counter-revolutionary conspiracy” or as stirred up by the “right‑wing opposition”; thus presenting the latter as in favor of the working class. This confusion is obviously possible because today there is no political point of reference to reveal the deception and indicate the direction to follow.
Street riots may well occur. But in the workplace the workers are threatened with layoffs and intimidated by the threat of being branded as counter-revolutionary, unpatriotic, pro‑imperialist, terrorist...
Therefore, although the dramatic fall in real wages continues, there have only been few struggles. Nurses have imposed a national strike for wage increases while rejecting the government’s offer of supplementary vouchers only. Doctors joined the fight. The same in the electricity sector where an agitation and mobilization nucleus could widen its range of action, by asking for a salary that would allow basic shopping bills to get paid, and rejecting government incentives.
The fact is that workers have still not managed to equip themselves with a rank and file class organization, to counter all the unions that in Venezuela as well belong to employers’ unionism and consequently do not promote mobilization and strikes. The struggle for workers’ demands will necessarily arise from the workers’ base, and from outside the control of the current unions.
After a brief reference to the initial phase of the First World War on the Western front, the report described the stalemate in that sector in 1915, a consequence of the bloody battles of 1914, with alternate results for the two armies. The German plan of attack had failed because in November 1914 the Entente forces managed, in the first battle of Ypres, to prevent the breakthrough, despite having to cede territory. The war of movement became trench warfare, with its barbed wire fences, fortifications and bunkers.
The battle plan adopted by the Anglo-French envisaged an intense pre-emptive bombardment of several hours to destroy the German defenses, fences and their advanced positions, after which the infantry would rapidly cross no man’s land with bayonet assaults in parallel rows. But these always ended in massacres because the Germans had built underground bunkers, the thick barriers of fences resisted grenades, and their machine guns exterminated the attackers.
Thus it was in the second battle of Artois in May 1915, part of the larger second battle of Ypres, with losses of around 100 thousand French. A similar massacre took place at the end of September in the Champagne region. Three days of bombing with 250 thousand grenades and over 5 thousand cylinders of poison gas allowed an initial advance, but the German counterattack recovered all the lost ground. Despite French losses of 145,000, compared with 72,000 Germans, the French general Joffre presented this battle as a victory.
Due to the heavy rains that began in November, and flooded the trenches, the offensives were suspended. To avoid any spontaneous fraternization such as occurred in the “Christmas truce” of the previous year, bombings were ordered on that day.
The general perspective of the Germans was to weaken France to the point of forcing it to a separate peace, and then hit England, considered the main opponent.
There then began a war of attrition, to inflict losses on the adversary by draining its resources and weakening morale.
But the two sides were also planning future offensives. The Germans attacked the Verdun stronghold to get closer to Paris. The British, to ease the pressure on Verdun, carried out a major offensive at the Somme river. They were counting on their efficient industry which allowed prolonged bombardments followed by an attack by infantry and cavalry.
The German attack on Verdun was very simple: bombardment in the morning and advance by the infantry in the afternoon. On a 14 kilometer front were placed 1,220 guns, one every 12 meters, with 2.5 million shells fired in the first 6 days, and 8 flamethrower companies deployed as well, all transported in 1,300 trains. The attack on the outer forts was initially successful. But French reinforcements to defend “the homeland in danger” prevented defeat. The French general Nivelle adopted the “rolling barrage”: a lightning grenade attack followed by infantry; it didn’t always work and many were lost to “friendly fire”. Verdun ended in stalemate. The losses were around 420 thousand casualties on each side, 800 thousand poisoned by gas or injured, 150 thousand unidentifiable dead. The German artillery fired 22 million shots, the French 15 million.
For the great offensive on the Somme the English bourgeoisie launched a voluntary enrolment of young recruits by inserting in the same units those coming from the same village, workshop, urban district, etc. to mask their total lack of experience. The English commander Haig concentrated an artillery array of 3,000 pieces, one every 20 meters of the front, with 2 million shots. In the preceding months the engineers had dug an extensive network of tunnels under the German defenses, filled with tons of explosives.
On 24 June the British bombing began. It would go on for a week and 10 thousand cylinders of chlorine and phosgene gas were opened. On 1 July from 7.00 am, 250 thousand shells were fired in one hour, 70 per second. At 7.20 underground mines were exploded and 27 thousand gas cylinders opened. At 7.30 am the infantry were given the order to attack, only to discover the barbed wire in front of the German trenches was still intact. The defenders opened fire with machine guns. The first day was a complete disaster for the British forces with 58 casualties against 8 thousand Germans. The battlefield was so devastated that it took days to get a description of it.
In the Battle of the Somme there were no winners: the few British territorial conquests cost 600 thousand casualties, compared to 400 thousand Germans, with the consumption of an enormous amount of material.
With the premature arrival of the autumn rains, the trench warfare characterized by grenades, snipers and mud resumed.
But meanwhile the military commands were thinking about what offensives to launch in 1917.
On balance the operations up to 1916 had gone slightly in favor of the Entente: the capture of Verdun had failed; the Austro-Hungarian army hadn’t defeated the Italian army, and repeated Russian offensives on the eastern front had made things difficult for the Central Empires. The German plan for a blitzkrieg was sunk.
In the first years of the war the best soldiers had been lost, and the new conscripts were composed of adults and young people who had been given only basic instruction and little physical training. Meanwhile ideas about social revolution were diffusing through the masses, despite the terrible reprisals carried out by the high commands on all sides to stop it spreading.
All military plans were disrupted by two important events: the Russian revolution in February and the entry into the war of the United States of America on 6 April.
Germany had been relying on submarine warfare to prevent supplies to Britain from the Commonwealth and the Allies: in April alone, the u‑boots sank about a million tons of merchant shipping.
Enrollment in the US on a voluntary basis provided a contingent of one million men, which could be increased to three; but at least one year of preparation was needed: that was the time the Germans had left.
Three days after the US declaration of war, the “sealed train” that would take Lenin to Petrograd left Switzerland. According to the German plans its arrival would contribute to the disintegration of the new Russian provisional government which had been established after the abdication of the tsar on March 15th, and which was faithful to the Entente.
The Anglo-French command prepared another offensive. In the Arras area, after five days of heavy bombing and aerial battles, the “rolling barrage” and the advance of infantry and tanks began. But five days later the operation was suspended due to the serious losses caused by friendly fire and the difficulties in proceeding with tanks and horse‑drawn guns over muddy ground ravaged by bombs.
On April 16, another major French offensive began, using nearly a million soldiers with 7,000 machine guns and the first French tanks. It resulted in a complete disaster: French losses came to nearly 100 thousand, and of the 128 tanks that went into action, 32 were destroyed on the very first day.
With the umpteenth useless bloodbath, the morale of the front‑line units collapsed, resentment of the war exploded and sporadic desertions turned into mutinies. It was not enough to replace General Nivelle with Pétain, who granted longer rest periods, leave and better rations. On May 27, as the first American units arrived in France, as many as 30,000 front‑line soldiers abandoned the trenches on the strategic Chemin des Dames route, the scene of bloody clashes, to move to the rear. The protests continued and one unit seized a small village, and there appointed a pacifist government. For a whole week soldiers across the whole sector refused to fight.
The repression of the military commands was immediate and included mass arrests. Court martials charged 23,395 soldiers with mutiny and 400 were condemned to death with others sentenced to forced labor in the colonies. Pétain later reduced the number of executions to 50. But the crisis in the sector lasted six weeks, and when it ended the French High Command realized that the troops would no longer put up with a new offensive but at most would be willing to defend the positions.
The offensive then passed to the British command supported by the Americans. In June, the British began the second battle of Ypres. The British sappers had dug tunnels under the German lines filled with 500 tons of explosives: when triggered at the same time, they immediately killed 10,000 Germans and several thousand were deafened. A massive bombardment with 2,266 cannons followed, which allowed the occupation of some targets; but the offensive had to stop the same day due to the muddy, shattered terrain.
In July a third battle of Ypres, resulting in massive losses, convinced the British commanders too that it was impossible to break through. However, despite the incessant rains turning everything into a sea of mud, the generals continued to order further useless attacks.
Meanwhile the Italian front collapsed at Caporetto.
The British made improvements to their tanks and soon these would become a strategic assault weapon, and not just a tactical one, in trench warfare.
The Germans for their part were perfecting the formation of the Stoßtruppen, assault battalions composed of the best soldiers grouped into small dynamic units with sufficient military equipment and special training. They had the task of putting an end to the static nature of the trench warfare with decisive actions targeted at specific points in the opposing lines.
The situation at the end of 1917 saw the Entente in difficulty: on the western front a strategic stalemate; the Germans were resisting, also with the troops brought back from the eastern front; the Russian Soviet government had initiated contacts to discuss a peace treaty while in Italy the Austro-Hungarians had advanced to the Piave.
It was time for the United States of America to go to war. The flow of arrivals would bring their total to 500,000 men in May 1918, and double that in July.
Germany, after the final surrender of Russia with the Brest‑Litovsk treaty of 3 March 1918, had to take advantage of the momentary numerical superiority to bring the war to a swift conclusion.
The spring offensive began with the most devastating artillery bombardment of the entire war: 6,400 cannons, about half of all artillery pieces on the western front, 3,500 mortars and 730 planes in a few hours hurled sufficient fire at the British lines to put them out of action, allowing German assault troops to occupy, on just the first day, a territory equal to that conquered by the British in the 140 days of the Somme. In the following week the advance continued for another 65 kilometers as it closed in on Paris. 90,000 captured prisoners, 1,300 cannons, 212,000 dead or wounded enemy soldiers and an entire British army put out of action. But the Germans, too, lost 240,000 soldiers and officers from the select troops with some divisions reduced by half. But the ports of the English Channel were not reached. On April 29th this offensive also proved to be a failure.
In May the Allies managed to stop the Germans at the gates of Reims, and here the German fight against time ended.
As dawn broke through a thick fog on August 8, the Anglo‑French plus 4 Canadian infantry divisions launched a gigantic and sudden attack with the support of 456 tanks and armored vehicles. They would break through the German front, destroying or surrounding 6 divisions. Ludendorff called this “the darkest day” not only because of the loss of 30,000 soldiers plus 13,000 prisoners but due to the collapse of the morale of the troops who had surrendered en masse and who, as he reported, shouted to the officers “stop the war”, and “scabs” to the reserves sent on that day to the front!
The clash between tanks of the opposing sides once again posed a war of movement, in contrast with the static nature of trench warfare.
In August, the British and Americans attacked on the Somme and within a week had got the Germans to withdraw from the entire area. In September, the German command, given the loss of 230,000 men in that month alone, had to admit that the front was close to collapse and the war was lost. On 29 Ludendorff went to Kaiser Wilhelm II to ask him to put forward a peace proposal in order to avoid a military defeat in the field. He blamed the situation on “the Spartacist and socialist ideas that had poisoned the German army”. On October 4, the new chancellor von Baden telegraphed Washington to demand an armistice based on the “Fourteen Points” which the American president Wilson had proposed for peace and a new arrangement of borders in Europe.
On November 3 the internal front of Germany was in turmoil and the social war would shift to there. That day, following a number of riots on October 29 and 30, the entire German fleet mutinied in Kiel, firmly opposing the admirals’ plan to organize a last suicide raid on the British coast. That day marked the beginning of the “November Revolution”; and on the 6th the sailor’s revolt extended to the military naval base of Wilhelmshaven.
A new offensive in the Argonne gave the final blow to the German army, bled dry and demotivated by the political crisis at home which was reflected at the front.
But, despite the much greater availability of men and means and major support from America, the Allies in this last offensive failed to drive Germany out of France and Belgium; a Germany that in the meantime had become isolated after the Ottoman Empire had signed the armistice of Mudros with the Allies on October 30, and Austria-Hungary had capitulated and signed the armistice of Villa Giusti with Italy on November 4.
The German retreat was never a disorderly rout and Germany appeared undefeated in the field. It is quite likely that considerations of political stability came into play throughout Europe, given the victorious Bolshevik revolution in Russia, and the numerous mutinies, harshly repressed, on all the war fronts, whereas now in Germany the old imperial institutions collapsed with the proclamation of the Republic. It was feared that the victorious revolutionary wind blowing in from Russia would sweep away all the rotten bourgeois governments.
In this 100‑day offensive alone, the tally of allied losses was appalling: France’s losses were 531,000, the British Empire’s 412,000 and the United States’s 127,000. In addition to these should be added those of Belgium, Canada, Australia and Portugal which also had troops in the sector. These high losses were due to the insistence, after 4 years of war, on further unsuccessful and suicidal “frontal attacks”. The bourgeoisies feared the post‑war period and the crisis of demobilization: they preferred the proletarians to die in their millions than find them, organized in unions and aligned with Bolshevism, in open rebellion in the streets of the cities.
The clauses of the Versailles treaty were quite onerous for Germany and included it accepting “culpability for the war”. The negotiations lasted for a year from January 18, 1919 to January 21, 1920. Frontiers were redrawn and new States were created, especially in Central Europe against Bolshevik Russia, and others for the Southern Slavs, to contain Italian expansionism along the Adriatic coast.
England, although on the winning side in this war, would be replaced by the United States as the world’s foremost maritime power.
The war had also shown how powerful the development of the industrial systems of the belligerent countries was, with the production of large masses of all types of weaponry, ships, airplanes, communication equipment and various instrumentation in continuous improvement; a production made possible by the generalized use in the factories of women’s labour, replacing that of the men at the front.
The general statistics for this first world war are still approximate. For the military dead they indicate between 9 and 12 million. For the Entente 6 million: Russian Empire 30%; France 25%; British Empire 16%; Italy 12%; Serbia 8%; Romania 6% United States 2% and other countries 1%. The Central Powers had about 4 million deaths. Civilian deaths are calculated between 6 and 9 million, not including those resulting from the Russian civil war and the Armenian genocide. Total losses from the conflict, combining civilian and the military figures, are estimated to be over 37 million: 16 million dead and more than 20 million wounded or mutilated.
The report then went on to describe the different military, political and social conditions that would underlie the revolution in Russia in 1917.
The military situation on the various fronts was for Russia not particularly critical since, despite the evident territorial losses on the northern front and the poor results of the counter-offensives organized by General Brusilov, there were however successes on the Austro-Hungarian side.
On the Caucasian front, General Judenič held important strongholds in vast Ottoman territories that had been occupied.
The Russian army at the time was the largest in the world with 15 million men. By 1917 it had lost 5 million of them in total. It had begun the conflict with a heavy deficit in armaments and ammunition, for which it depended heavily on France and England, paid for in gold bars and with the transfer of troops to the western front.
Within the army, however, the mutinies and desertions increased dramatically in the final year of the conflict.
To counteract the unrest in the factories and the spread of socialist ideas against the war, the government authorities decided to send the most combative workers to the front; these spread socialist ideas among the soldiers, very often young people from remote places where that propaganda had not arrived.
The internal situation was still strongly linked to agriculture. Industrial development was based on large plants in a few areas, particularly in Moscow for textiles and in Petrograd for the metal and shipbuilding industry.
In Petrograd the population was 2.6 million inhabitants, of which 400,000 were workers, of whom a third were women. The Putilov workshops were the largest working class concentration in Russia with 15,000 workers, rising to 36,000 in 1916‑17 for war production. The city was the seat of the government, defended by an abnormally large garrison of 300,000 soldiers plus the 30,000 infantry and sailors of the Kronstadt naval base.
The purchasing power of wages during the war had decreased by 30%. Moreover, having diverted 12 million peasants and large numbers of horses from the countryside to the front, agricultural production had collapsed, forcing the government to ration heavily.
The young autocrat Nicholas II Romanov continued the policy of moving Russia towards assuming a role as an industrial and imperialist power, but profound changes would be needed to get rid of the resistance of the still strong aristocratic classes.
The disastrous Russian-Japanese war of 1904‑1905 marked a turning point.
A peaceful demonstration organized by the Workers’ Assembly to present a petition to the tsar for salary improvements, greater civil liberties and trade union freedom is stopped by machine guns and Cossack charges, resulting in at least 1,200 dead and over 5,000 injured.
The revolution would spread to the whole of Russia, above all involving the countryside in which the condition of the peasants had markedly worsened after the abolition of serfdom and the redemption of the land with compensation.
The formation of the workers’ organizations was then described. The main political formations in Russia arose at the end of the 1800s, all of them obliged to organize in secret.
Within the various nationalities present in the Russian empire, parties of socialist and nationalist inspiration, tending towards forms of autonomy if not independence from Russia, were created in Poland, Lithuania, Georgia and Armenia. The Jewish community founded the socialist Bund.
The comrade continued the series of reports on the history of India describing the period between 1920 and 1934 when the Congress Party, after a series of defeats, took part in elections.
In September 1920, Gandhi had publicly declared that through the Non‑Cooperation Program he would achieve self‑government for the entire Indian nation in a very short time; but during the Nagpur Congress it became clear that such a forecast was unrealistic.
In August 1921 the Moplah of the Malabar, an ethnic group of Islamic religion formed mainly by poor peasants, mobilized by the watchwords of the Non‑Cooperators, gave rise to a widespread and intense revolt that affected several districts of the region. The insurrection, assuming at the same time the dimensions of an anti‑colonial war and peasant rebellion against the great landowners and the lenders of money, did not have a centralized direction and was suffocated by the colonial authorities only a year later.
Between the end of 1921 and the beginning of 1922 the public order situation, especially in the United Provinces, deteriorated. Gandhi was unable to direct and control the vast majority of the movement according to his non‑violent directives. On February 4, 1922, in Chauri Chaura, a village in the United Provinces, a crowd attacked the local police station, killing 21 policemen.
Eight days later the Non‑Cooperation movement was suspended. The division between Muslims and Hindus was widening. Between 1923 and 1926, the number of inter‑community incidents increased fourfold compared to the period between 1900 and 1922. In the following years, several Hindu extremist associations emerged such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), not active in the anti‑colonial struggle but in clashes with the Muslims.
When the Labour Party won the British elections in June 1929, it soon became clear that despite the positions it took when in opposition and the promises made during the electoral campaign, not even they would grant India self‑government.
Congress on December 31, 1929 declared, having almost been forced to do so, that its goal was to achieve complete independence. Gandhi took up the task of leading a new movement of civil disobedience, which began with the famous march from Ahmedabad to Dandi, between March 12 and April 5, 1930, the intention being to publicly break the law on the State monopoly of the production and sale of salt. Gandhi travelled accompanied by numerous journalists. The masses and workers of some cities were ready to strike, but once again they were invited to be patient.
Alongside the forms of struggle dictated by Gandhi, the terrorist movement re‑emerged. The first action actually took place in Bengal with the attack in Chittagong against a police armory. The government’s response once again was to raise the level of repression. Gandhi was arrested in May 1930 and Congress was outlawed.
The civil disobedience movement, until then predominantly limited to the cities, lost momentum for a while and shifted to the countryside. This was a consequence of the effects of the global economic crisis, which emerged after the Wall Street Crash in October 1929, affecting India too.
England, through a perverse domino process, was no longer in a position to cope with the crisis. A liquidity crisis broke out, affecting the entire British banking system from London to the rest of the world, including India.
In the subcontinent, the scarcity of bank credit put in difficulty the big merchants who used to buy up local agricultural production In India. In the past, the dominant classes in the rural world stored production until prices rose. But from the summer of 1930 onwards, wheat prices continued to fall, even dragging down the price of millet. Taxation, which had been constant for many years and fixed in relation to production, became an intolerable burden. Less credit was granted to the exploited classes of the rural world which frequently pushed them below the point they could survive. Agricultural production collapsed and social tensions became explosive.
Against this background the Congress activists urged Indian farmers not to pay the land tax.
If the policy expressed so far by Congress was based on the ability to maintain a semblance of unity of all social classes, mobilized in the fight against the colonial State, during the agitations in the rural world tension between the ruling groups at the local level and the poor peasants became more and more frequent. And Congress supported the socially dominant groups at the local level.
At the same time, some of the big industrialists and financiers – who had actively supported the party – became increasingly concerned. They had supported Gandhi because they were dissatisfied with the economic policy of the colonial government, but now they were beginning to be alarmed that the continuous unrest promoted within the civil disobedience movement might contribute to the collapse of the economy and result in social revolts.
In March 1931 the cowardly Indian bourgeoisie pushed through an agreement between the Viceroy and Gandhi to suspend the civil disobedience movement. This Irwin‑Gandhi Pact would be criticized by the Left of Congress and also by the young trade union movement that was gathering strength in some cities over those years. In January 1932 Gandhi, propelled by events, decided to resume civil disobedience, but this time the movement proved to be weak and lacking in momentum, not because of the fierce British repression but because of scant support from the peasantry, as from the ruling classes.
In 1933, the majority of congressmen, certainly not interested in the fate of the exploited classes, were convinced that the only way forward was to return to “parliamentary struggle”. In May 1934, with the blessing of Gandhi, it was decided that Congress would participate in the elections. Thus in the elections of the same year it won 44 of the 88 elective seats (another 39 were reserved for deputies appointed by the Viceroy), confirming itself at the polls as the largest Indian party.
At the subsequent general meeting the comrade continued the series of reports on the history of the sub‑continent describing events from 1937 to the end of the 2nd World War, on the threshold of Independence.
Congress, the one party with a Pan‑Indian organization, set about choosing its candidates. Candidates from among the local notables were preferred, able to finance their own electoral campaigns due to personal or caste wealth, social classes whose alliance with the Crown’s Raj formed its very basis, but who were now aligning themselves with Congress (and also with the Muslim League).
After the ending of the campaign of non‑cooperation, relations between Congress and the Muslims, and in particular with the League, began to deteriorate in many parts of India. Congress had obtained only modest success in Muslim constituencies. There was a considerable increase in Inter‑communal tensions, particularly in the North.
On the occasion of a League meeting in March 1940, Muhammed Ali Jinnah enunciated the two‑nations theory for the first time. The task of Muslims was to form within India a nation which was different with respect to the Indian/Hindu one, such that “independent States” would be formed.
When the viceroy announced the entry into the war, without any consultation with the India parties, the Congress leaders ordered party members to withdraw from all the provincial governments, leaving an open field to the Muslim League, which in the war period, with English support, governed in many of the provinces previously administrated by Congress.
Gandhi announced the start of a new movement denominated individual civil disobedience, which lasted for a few months. A sterile and innocuous protest of individuals because the Indian bourgeoisie, mindful as it was of the uncontrollable collective revolts of the recent past, feared the colonial government less that it did the rage of the exploited masses.
The worsening of the military situation and the involvement of the USA in the war forced the Churchill government to reopen negotiations with Congress. Sir Stafford Cripps, a “progressive” with links to the Labour Party, a supporter of Congress and personal friend of Nehru, was dispatched to the sub‑continent. Cripps offered a series of concessions culminating in dominion status for India, but only after the war, until which time the institutional set‑up would remain unaltered. The mission failed.
With an imminent Japanese invasion predicted by many, Gandhi offered the English the “Quit India” solution, calling for the immediate end of the British political power but conceding to the allied powers the use of India as a military base against Japan. The English reaction was immediate: in the night between the 8 and 9th of August 1942 Congress was decapitated with the umpteenth arrest of the Mahatma and of hundreds of other prominent members of the party.
Today’s China, after troubled decades of capitalist development, has become one of the major imperialist countries, and appears on the world market as a brigand among brigands, ready to replace the United States of America as the predominant world power. The Chinese proletarians and poor peasants, who today know well what it means to carry the chains of capitalist oppression in the factories and fields, tomorrow will be called by the bourgeoisie to shed their blood for the Fatherland.
But Chinese proletarians are bound to equip themselves with a class organization and combative unions once again, and to reconnect with the program of revolutionary communism.
And returning to the methods of struggle and organization of its early generations of workers would be nothing new for the Chinese proletariat, which has a glorious tradition to refer back to.
From 1920 to 1927, China provided the most important example of an independent action by the proletarian class in the whole of the history of the anti‑colonial movements. In the twenties the Chinese proletariat, although a small minority if compared to the ocean of peasants, established a supremely important role for itself in the class struggles and placed itself at the head of the nascent revolution that could be both national and proletarian at the same time. The unions were formed back then, and they conducted struggles and strikes which were real class wars, leaving much worker’s blood on the battlefield but also a significant testimony in the history of our movement; such as the victory of the Shanghai uprising, which before being defeated by the actual arms of Chiang Kai‑shek was disarmed and led to the slaughter by the Stalinist betrayal.
The Chinese Communist Party, even if small to begin with, soon placed itself at the head of trade unions and became the reference point for the Chinese proletariat and, in some areas, also for the peasant masses.
The CCP, formed in 1921, developed in the midst of great social struggles and could have assumed the role of leader of the revolution but for opportunism, which, having penetrated the International, condemned it to renounce its political and organizational autonomy. The International, by forcing the CCP to enter the Kuomintang and entrusting to the latter the leadership of the Chinese revolution, brought about the defeat of communism in China.
The defeat of the communists in China has had for the revolutions of the East the importance that the failure of the German revolution had in Europe. For the party the purpose of going back over the great struggles that shook China in the 1920s is to seek the causes of the defeat and to prepare the way for the next revolutionary attack.
To describe the developing class struggle in China in the 1920s, it is necessary to reconstruct the succession of radical changes which had affected the old economic forms and social organizations in this immense country.
The great stability of its institutions has been a constant feature in China’s history and the efforts to create new ones have been long and arduous.
Western intervention in its first phase is unable to tarnish that well‑organized State. Freedom of trade is severely limited.
The opium trade, predominantly in English hands, has disastrous social consequences: the capital needed for large‑scale regulation of irrigation and water supply vanishes, with disastrous effects in the countryside and on food supplies.
The Chinese government reacts to the economic collapse by embarking on a campaign to repress drug trafficking, leading it, within a short space of time, to clash with the Western powers: from 1839 to 1860 the Opium Wars are fought with England and, later on, also with France. The Empire, each time defeated, must submit to foreign impositions.
But as Marx argued, the British cannon had given rise to the Taiping social uprising. The strength of British arms had broken China’s secular isolation, for purely economic reasons. After opium, other English products invaded China, ruining industry and the crafts. The decline of imperial authority, the ruin of domestic handicrafts, the fiscal burden on peasants put an end to the millennial stability of the Empire.
Marx wondered if the bourgeois revolution in China would have repercussions on white capitalism and would give a revolutionary shock to old Europe. The idea that there may be a concomitance between the internal class struggle of workers against capitalism in the white metropolises, and the rebellion of the peoples of overseas to colonial rule is not a novelty born at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth century, when Lenin analyzed the phenomenon of imperialism, it is a historical possibility already fully described by Marx and Engels.
Imperialism slowly dismembers China and the tributary States of the Empire (Vietnam, Burma, Siam, Laos, Korea, Nepal) fall under foreign control. All the imperialist powers participate in the banquet by extorting territorial, commercial and railway concessions from China. To exploit China, they use the traditional apparatus of bureaucrats and notables, culminating in the Imperial Court. The dynasty no longer holds any power; in various regions the domination of military leaders, the Warlords, is established.
In 1911 the revolution establishes the bourgeois republic under the presidency of Sun Yat‑sen, but its inconsistency becomes apparent, so much so that Sun Yat‑sen leaves power in the hands of a warlord. The renewal of the country is suffocated at birth. It is essentially an unfinished revolution, and others would follow.
From 1913 Lenin draws lessons from the first wave of bourgeois national revolutions in the East: Russia (1905), Persia (1906), Turkey (1908), China (1911): “The Asiatic revolutions have again shown us the spinelessness and baseness of liberalism, the exceptional importance of the independence of the democratic masses, and the pronounced demarcation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie of all kinds”. (The Historical Destiny of the Doctrine of Karl Marx, 1913).
The victory of the proletariat in Russia would open up to Asia the following grandiose perspective: from the moment when all over the world the question of the proletarian revolution appeared on the agenda, even in backward countries like China, it was possible and necessary to launch the struggle for a Soviet regime. The Communist International, before it fell under the blows of the Stalinist counter-revolution, had launched the watchword of the union between the class struggle in the metropolises of advanced capitalism and the national-popular uprisings in the colonies, with revolutionary Russia at the center, in a unique strategy aimed at destroying bourgeois power all over the world.
Despite peasant revolts Chinese society had remained in a state of equilibrium, and not even the waves of invasions of the nomadic and warrior peoples of Central Asia had changed its nature. Although victorious in the military field, these peoples were carriers of inferior modes of production: they merged quickly with the conquered country. Only the impact with the capitalist mode of production put an end to a system that had hardly changed for centuries.
For millennia in China an economy had prevailed, almost unchanged, in which soil cultivation was accompanied by a production of goods based on family structures and at the village level. The central power was soon superimposed on this static form.
The central power was weakened under the impact of European imperialism, with the mandarins and the comprador bourgeoisie squandering the State assets. Imperialism also upset social relations in the countryside. The old class of government officials, the mandarins and the military, having transformed themselves into a big merchant bourgeoisie, invested profits in the countryside, extorting the land from the peasants and the agrarian communities.
Hunger and extreme poverty affected the majority of peasants, forced to live, work and produce on tiny, insufficient plots, they were forced into debt. They ended up losing their plots of land and were reduced to being tenant farmers.
The arrival of Westerners had thus created a close link between landowners and the merchant bourgeoisie. The latter, allied to imperialism and intermediary for the marketing of Western products, accumulated enormous profits, which they invested in land or put to use as usurious capital in the countryside.
The nascent Chinese bourgeoisie was closely connected with the foreign capitalist, for which it acted as agent. If on the one hand it aspired to national liberation, on the other its wealth came from foreign capital. In addition, they feared the consequences of a revolutionary process, which would set in motion the peasant masses and the nascent but aggressive proletariat.
Lenin concludes: “To the extent that the number of Shanghais will increase in China, the Chinese proletariat will increase, probably forming a social-democratic workers’ party which, criticizing the petty-bourgeois utopias and the reactionary ideas of Sun Yat‑Sen, will certainly know how to carefully appropriate, preserve and develop, the democratic-revolutionary core of its political and agrarian program”.
But already in the “Address of the Central Committee to the Communists’ League”, in March 1850, Marx and Engels warned the workers by arguing that “from the very moment of victory the workers’ suspicion must be directed no longer against the defeated reactionary party but against their former ally”, because “As soon as the new governments have established themselves, their struggle against the workers will begin”, the “betrayal of the workers will begin with the first hour of victory”.
For Lenin there are three imperatives for proletarian tactics in the bourgeois-democratic revolution: “1) to acknowledge the leading function of the proletariat, its function as guide of the revolution; 2) to acknowledge as the end of the struggle the conquest of power by the proletariat, with the help of the other revolutionary classes; 3) to argue that the first, and perhaps the only, one among these supports lies with the peasants”.
These imperatives presuppose another, namely that the party of the proletariat retains its programmatic, political and organizational independence.
If the realization of its own political and national objectives could not be entrusted to the bourgeoisie, neither could it be expected from the peasants. Despite the enormous importance of the peasant question, the Chinese revolution could not be resolved in an essentially peasant revolution. Again from our “Theses on the Chinese Question” (Il Programma Comunista, n. 23/1964 and 2/1965): “Marxism has always stressed the incapacity of the peasant class to define a policy of its own. It has shown that agrarian insurrections, which are an integral part of bourgeois revolutions, have only succeeded under the leadership of the cities and by ceding power to them”.
The Communist International based the revolutionary struggle in the backward countries not on generic popular and national blocks, but on the peasant masses, poor and semi-proletarian and, heading their struggle, it directed armed revolts not only against imperialism but also against the local propertied classes, their bourgeoisie and the large landowners.
Stalinism destroyed the communist perspective by giving the Chinese bourgeoisie a revolutionary leadership role and subordinating the Chinese proletariat and the Communist Party to the leadership of the Kuomintang. And this was not a mistake: it was the bourgeois counter-revolution that was destroying the proletarian power in Russia and at the same time the proletarian and communist vision of the world revolution, turning the Communist International from World Party of the proletariat into an instrument to be used in the interests of the Russian State. In the wake of the victory of the counter-revolution in Moscow there lay the defeat of the Chinese revolution.
In Iran, between the end of December and the beginning of January, there was a wave of strikes and street clashes involving about eighty large and small towns in what was the largest class movement since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. It was the first time since then, in fact, that the middle classes and educated strata of the large cities, who have always been intolerant of the religious obscurantism of the theocratic regime, were not the ones opposing the regime. It is not by chance that on this occasion, unlike for example the 2009 movement against the regime, it was precisely these social strata that kept their distance and viewed the return of the class struggle with suspicion.
The working class has gone back to using the strike weapon, despite knowing it was bound to come up against fierce repression from the capitalist State, for which religious justifications would be given.
The underlying reasons for the strike were the ever harsher living conditions of the workers, imposed due to military spending on the Iranian military engagement in Syria and Iraq, and support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Another factor was the weakening of the State budget due to the drop in oil prices since 2014, which reduced the effect of the increased volume of exports allowed by the ending of economic sanctions following the signing of the Iranian nuclear agreement in 2015.
The wave of strikes started in the town of Mashhad (the second largest city in the country) where the populist wing, less willing to carry out the regime’s cosmetic reforms, tried to exploit the widespread discontent of the workers over the cost of living; due to the cessation of price support for basic necessities which was justified by the government on the grounds of military expenditure. But the revolt soon got out of hand for the apprentice sorcerers of the theocratic regime and spread to the country’s many industrial centres.
Iran has a very high rate of urbanisation (73% of the population live in towns) and has experienced in recent decades a significant development in its productive apparatus to the point that today it can be considered a capitalistically mature country, with 32.5% of the workforce employed in industry.
Workers have taken to the streets, driven there by wages that have stayed the same for many years and which are often paid in arrears, and engaged in violent looting and attacks on, among other places, police stations and the offices of the guardians of the “revolution”. Slogans were chanted against military spending, rejecting the rhetoric of the government propaganda which is always boasting about the military successes of the Shiite militias supported by Iran, and of the Iranian Pasdaran in Iraq and Syria.
A relentless crackdown by the capitalist State against the insurgent proletarians was not long in coming and lethal force was deployed. The regime itself has acknowledged 23 deaths and over a thousand arrests during the street demos, while according to other sources there were more than 50 casualties and 3,700 arrested. It eventually got to a stage where, to quell the revolts and terrorize the workers into containing their anger, a part of the Shiite and Pasdaran militias were recalled from foreign theatres of war and redeployed into some of the trouble torn cities. This shows once again that military deployments abroad, even when successful, do not always succeed in sedating the class struggle, always smouldering beneath the surface ready to reignite. The capitalist State is perfectly aware that its most dangerous enemy lies within its own frontiers, and that when the proletariat raises its head the most urgent matter for the bourgeoisie is repressing the workers with armed force, even at the cost of undermining its military undertakings abroad.
In the months following our general meeting there have been further sporadic strikes and riots (often very violent and apparently uncoordinated) affecting several localities, evidencing that there is widespread discontent among the workers. Last but not least, in mid‑May incidents occurred in the city of Kazerun in the province of Fars, in which at least one person died and many others were injured after the crowd set fire to a police station.
As every year at our spring general meeting, we comment on data on global arms spending and on their trade. We rely on data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, updated every year in April. This source, which shows the military expenditure of almost every State since 1988, is today the most complete, coherent, and extensive among those available to us.
As well as taking a great interest in the course of the economic crisis in the major imperialist countries, the Party also studies the data on the rearmament of the various States and blocs of alliances, in the belief that the only way this social system can avoid the crisis that is gripping it is with a new world war that destroys most of the means of production and of the proletariat itself, in order to start a new production cycle, as happened after the second world war.
Since the end of the Second Imperialist War in 1945, the world has never known a period of relative peace. The two major imperialist blocs, the United States of America and the Stalinized Soviet Union, clashed, though not directly, in very serious conflicts which resulted in millions of deaths, bringing devastation to many East Asian, African, and Middle Eastern countries.
It was not long before all the fine words and good intentions expressed by the ruling classes of the entire world at the end of the war, a war they had caused, marked by tens and tens of millions of victims and which culminated in the use of two deadly atomic bombs, proved to be just propaganda, with the arms factories continuing to enthusiastically participate in the “arms race”, thus contributing to the recovery of the various national economies.
In recent years, regional wars have intensified, helping the capitalist regime to mitigate the effects of the crisis of over-production, and at the same time operating as a driver to increase the consistency and efficiency of the military apparatuses of the main countries.
The wars, limited to a few regions of the globe, but ever closer to the nodal centers of the capitalist regime, have been so numerous and devastating that they are defined by the bourgeois themselves as a “a piecemeal third world war”. A new war hangs over the whole of humanity.
No one can foresee today the results of a generalized war in which so‑called “weapons of mass destruction” are used, with which this technologically advanced and humanly backward society has been able to equip itself, but we communists know that this war can be averted. It is the proletarian class, and it alone, which will be able to prevent it breaking out, by first threatening, and then imposing, its international communist revolution.
from our theses of 1989: “Within the limits set by capitalist production, and with the
Within the limits set by capitalist production, and with the
instruments on offer from the political system which supports it,
imperialist war cannot be avoided: only an historical counter-power
which opposes this system, namely the proletarian class guided by its
party, can establish the one possibility of prevention, for only by
razing the global structure of capitalist power to the ground can
humanity be spared its horrors, above all, that of war. Only in a
socialist world, in a non‑mercantile, non‑capitalist, non‑statist
society – the first true beginning of human history – will war no
longer have reason to exist”.
At our general meeting, we summarized the 1972 report “La tragedia del primo dopoguerra proletario tedesco” (“The Tragedy of the Post‑First World War German Proletariat”).
One of the characteristic aspects of Germany was the absence of a single political and economic centre. This had been reflected in a multitude of relatively autonomous groups within the SPD, and the worst of it was that this dispersion tended to be theorized by the forces which should have expressed, at the decisive moment, the momentum and combativeness with which the proletarian masses, hurled into the vortex of war and the even more swirling post‑war period, was propelling forward the central political objectives of the revolutionary struggle. Thus In 1919 violent revolutionary hotbeds were ignited almost everywhere and communes, unfortunately short‑lived, were formed.
Leftist immediacy in 1919‑1920 also mirrored a localism which was unable to move beyond itself within a global vision of the problems of the proletarian revolution. The so‑called left‑wing radicalism, which merged into the KAPD in April 1920, had its centres in Hamburg, Bremen, Berlin, Dresden and, within the framework of a common general vision of a trade‑unionist nature, it presented notable nuances, the harbingers of potential or imminent conflict and division.
Widespread in these groups was the tendency to seek the key to the dispersion of opportunism, and to the alignment of the workers’ movement on the front of the revolution, in immediate forms of economic organization in which there was direct expression, with no intermediate and deforming barriers, of the will of the class understood in a generic sense. For some they were the works councils, often confused with the Soviets, for others the industrial unions, as opposed to the traditional trade unions, for others the unions as organizations overcoming the dichotomy between economic struggle and political struggle, something similar to the One Big Union of the IWW, the American Industrial Workers of the World, but always built on federal bases to avoid the feared dictatorship of the leaders and the oppression of the masses by a top‑down legislating leadership.
The question of revolution was thus reduced to a question of forms of organization, what’s more, economic forms, revolutionary in themselves precisely because immediate, faithfully reflecting the will to fight and the class consciousness of the proletariat, no longer internally divided against itself, so to speak, by the mediation of the party, whose function was, depending on the local group, either denied or reduced to a mere role of theoretical enlightenment and intellectual propaganda.
This led to the watchword of desertion of the traditional trade unions, bureaucratic bodies considered therefore to be counterrevolutionary by nature, and of parliament, the ultimate temple not so much of democratic deception, as of the dominance of the leaders over the masses and of the denial of “worker democracy”.
The economic struggle was overvalued to the detriment of the political struggle, with the former seen as a gradual process, albeit from time to time violent, of taking possession of the productive mechanism at its source, that is, the factory. What was forgotten was the fundamental Marxist thesis according to which “the proletarian revolution in its acute phase, before the process of transformation begins, is a struggle for power between the bourgeoisie and the proletariat which culminates in the constitution of a new form of State, the condition for which is the existence of the proletarian Councils as political bodies, and the prevalence within them of the Communist Party”. For this historic step to be taken, it presupposes “a collective, centralized action directed by the Party in the political arena”, by the “strong, centralized Marxist party, as Lenin called it” (from a 1920 article in Il Soviet).
Thus, as a reflection of an objective fragmentation of the workers’ movement, immediacy exacerbated it by theorizing it as a point of strength rather than weakness.
The “left‑wing” communists of Bremen and Berlin did not recognize the exclusion of right‑wingers from the party as irrevocable, but rather proposed changes to their theses that would allow them to remain in the organization. The third congress of the KPD, in February 1920, however, in reconfirming the program voted in Heidelberg, had sanctioned the exclusion of dissidents. The Berlin section, immediately after the events of March, therefore convened for 4‑5 April the representatives of all the currents of the “communist opposition” and a new party was then founded, the Kommunistische Arbeiter-Partei Deutschlands (KAPD), with its numerically stronger organizational strongholds in Berlin, Hamburg, Bremen, Essen and Saxony.
We in the abstentionist fraction described the KPD dissidents as enticed by “unionist heterodoxy”, in the twofold sense that they devalued the role of the party and put the economic struggle before the political one, and that they shared the “anarchic-petit bourgeois conception of the new economy as a result of the creation of companies directly administered by the workers who work there”.
The revolutionary process takes the form of a physical clash between two classes, in which the subordinate class is driven onto the terrain of launching an attack on the power of the opposing class by material factors, and acts without knowing, or before knowing, the ultimate direction in which it is moving. On this road it encounters the party, that is, it comes into contact with the program or consciousness of the final objective, and the obligatory stages on the journey required to get there, and with the organization, necessarily in a minority, of a communist vanguard that has crystallized around that program.
Instead, the KAPD would say in 1920 that, for the revolution to take place, “it is necessary that the proletariat, the great masses, clearly discern clearly the route and the destination”. According to them it is precisely due to the failure to complete this process of intellectual emancipation, not for reasons for which the Marxist should seek out material roots, that opportunism took hold of the majority of the working class.
The function of the party was just to advise, educate, enlighten and help the masses to become aware of themselves, to rediscover that science that is Marxism, but not to guide them as an organ of combat, to exercise power in their name, to unify the instinctive proletarian revolt and align it with the real movement of which the party alone is truly cognisant.
The antithesis masses-leaders thus replaced class struggle. Parliament was rejected not as a specific organ of the class domination of the bourgeoisie, but as “a typical means of struggle conducted by leaders”. And the trade unions were viewed in the same light, whereas in the factory bodies “the workers have the leaders under their control and thus the political line, and every worker has power in his hands”.
For the “left‑wing” communists of Bremen and Berlin, the Bolshevik type party, i.e., Marxist (ours), only corresponded to the historical situation of Russia engaged in a double revolution, half proletarian and half bourgeois, and the same instrument was not applicable in the West, where the proletariat is the one revolutionary class.
And ever since then we have said that the ideology of the KAPD, on the level of theory and principles no less than that of tactics, is entirely different from the position steadfastly defended by the Italian communist abstentionists.