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1919-2019. One hundred years from the foundation of the Communist International

The Analysis of a Defeat

From the special series 1919-2019. One hundred years from the foundation of the Communist International

It was in Lenin’s legacy that the generation of the ’20s and ’30s could have found the theoretical tools to deal with the unprecedented Stalinist counter-revolution and execute an organised retreat for the world party.

Socialism in one country?

Lenin had already framed the essential characteristics of that issue in 1915: given that Uneven economic and political development is an absolute law of capitalism, it could be assumed that the victory of socialism would be possible first in several or even in one capitalist country alone. What that first unequivocally means is that either the socialist revolution is replicated internationally, or it is inevitably defeated. Moreover, since the revolution had begun in backwards Russia, in 1917 it was already predictable that the time given to this inception in one country would be very short. Of course, extensions were possible, such as the one allowing us to win the civil war thanks to the imperialist front’s internal disputes. But there was no need to be under any excessive illusion: the time of an isolated socialist revolution in a backwards country would remain limited.

This correct approach to the problem of international revolution would be completely distorted by Stalinism which, from the premise of uneven development, would jump to opposite conclusions with the thesis of building socialism in one country and of peaceful coexistence.

Lenin’s clarity

Still, Lenin spoke and wrote with a clarity that left no space for misunderstanding. At the III CI Congress he declared:

When we started the international revolution […] We thought either the internatonal revolution comes to our assistance, and in that case our victory will be fully assured, or we shall do our modest revolutionary work in the conviction that even in the event of defeat we shall have served the cause of the revolution and that our experience will benefit other revolutions. It was clear to us that without the support of the international world revolution the victory of the proletarian revolution was impossible. Before the revolution, and even after it, we thought either revolution breaks out in the other countries, in the capitalistically more developed countries, immediately, or at least very quickly, or we must perish.

Lenin’s last lesson

It is no coincidence that Lenin’s last writing is a reflection on the retreat being undertaken in Russia and internationally, and on the possibility of the defeat. The article Better fewer, but better [Pravda, March 4th 1923] was dictated by Lenin in the first days of February 1923, that is a month before the illness forced him to suspend all activity. We can therefore consider it his theoretical testament. Lenin puts the question on the agenda:

Shall we be able to hold on with our small and very small peasant production, and in our present state of ruin, until the West-European capitalist countries consummate their development towards socialism?

Lenin’s answer is articulated and complex. Before examining it, however, it’s of use to note that Lenin didn’t expect history to grant the Russian commune an extension for a second time in the next catastrophic collapse or in a prolonged stagnation of world capitalism, but in the acceleration of capitalist contradictory development.

Four main factors are combined in Lenin’s last article: 1) the possibility of Soviet power resisting by keeping the worker-peasants alliance intact and allowing the development of Russian capitalism under the control of the proletarian dictatorship; 2) the political ability of the CI, the KPD and the Soviet foreign policy to exploit the struggle between the great imperialist powers around Germany — defeated and reduced to a semi-colony — for the benefit of the international revolution; here the powerful German proletariat could still play a role if a favourable opportunity emerged; 3) the accelerated capitalist development of Asia could have triggered a further round in the race for its definitive division among the great victorious powers and, at the same time, could have raised a wave of national and democratic revolutions in China, India, Persia, etc.; 4) in that case, ascending Japan would, in turn, enter into collision with Western powers, making a major conflict with an Asian epicentre and global repercussions inevitable. In short, as already hypothesised in 1921, one could expect a war to break out say, in 1925, or 1928, between, say, Japan and the U.S.A., or between Britain and the U.S.A., or something like that.

Thus, a war between the Versailles powers dictated by the competition for divvying up the Asian market would allow a civil war in Germany, reproducing the conditions of the October revolution in an advanced country.

In Lenin’s strategic vision, political, economic and military factors, class struggles and national upheavals of the colonial peoples in the peripheries met in a complex, dialectical and non-mechanistic elaboration in which the failure to consolidate the Versailles order around a recovery for Germany — the second weakest link in the imperialist chain — combined with the development of Asian capitalism, made a new and more catastrophic breakdown of the world order probable. At the core of Lenin’s reasoning was not a maximalist expectation that the last crisis of dying capitalism would arrive, but that the fact capitalism is incapable of maintaining a world balance found confirmation in the material facts of international politics.

By keeping the worker-peasant alliance, Soviet Russia could have obtained a second extension. But, specifies Cervetto, for Lenin the existence of Soviet power is a very important factor that must be safeguarded in all ways, except in that of its involution and, in this sense, the worker-peasant alliance is not considered necessary for the construction of socialism in the nation, but rather as an indispensable condition for the maintenance of workers’ power until the next revolutionary conjuncture.

The slow rise of nationalist Asia

Could Russia resist until the next military conflict between the counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist Easts? What did the possibility of a second extension depend on? Lenin:

I think the reply to this question should be that the issue depends upon too many factors, and that the outcome of the struggle as a whole can be forecast only because in the long run capitalism itself is educating and training the vast majority of the population of the globe for the struggle. In the last analysis, the outcome of the struggle will be determined by the fact that Russia, India, China, etc., account for the overwhelming majority of the population. […] In this sense, the complete victory of socialism is fully and absolutely assured.

Many have misunderstood these considerations, seeing in it a third worldist Lenin who by then looked at the Asian peasant world as a decisive factor in the world revolution. It is not so. In Lenin’s view the geographical epicentre of the world revolution remained in the capitalist West and more precisely in Germany. However, causing the new rupture of the order, allowing a new proletarian assault, lay with the contraditions of Asian development, with the uprisings of colonial peoples and their national wars. Cervetto: It is the East that objectively comes to the aid of proletarian Germany.

However, the time necessary for Asia to civilise was unforeseeable, and it was this factor that determined the degree of power wielded by national States, deciding whether they were capable of challenging the old western metropolises. In order for the victory of socialism to be fully assured — writes Lenin — this majority [Russian and Asian] must become civilised in time. Lenin does not fail to point out the importance of many unknown factors and, among these, first of all, the prostrate condition of Germany and the fact that the entire East, with its hundreds of millions of exploited working people, reduced to the last degree of human suffering, it is still far from being a real challenge even to one of the smaller West-European states.

Cervetto comments: The pace of economic development of the revolutionary and nationalist East thus becomes the pace of development of the objective conditions for the crisis of imperialism and for the proletarian revolution. The existence of Soviet power is conditioned by this pace: if the East will have time to develop and cause a war with the imperialist West, the existence of Soviet power will be assured. In retrospect it must be recognised — concludes Cervetto — that the development of Asia in the ’20s and ’30s was a slow development and that the East did not have the time to civilise to save Soviet power. When the 1929 crisis came, and, ten years later, the new great imperialist war, the Stalinist counter-revolution had already brought down Soviet power and the CI had become a docile instrument of foreign policy for the reborn Russian imperialism.

The defeat of the International

If the defeat of the Russian commune, at that point, was inevitable, the same cannot be said for the complete defeat of the CI, if only some of its departments had succeeded in preserving continuity with this strategy. Unfortunately, centrism and maximalism remained the prevalent element in the political training of cadres in the world party that formed too late to live up to the task it had set itself.

In a report marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the PCd’I, Cervetto gave an account of the lesson derived from that glorious experience. An evaluation that is also valid for the world party: 1) The Party must be formed in the counter-revolutionary phase in order to test itself; 2) the Party cannot be built in a rush (because it would inevitably be maximalist as in 1921); 3) the Party needs theoretical and practical preparation; 4) the Party must be homogeneous and cannot be formed of various currents. Russia taught us that it is a single line (Lenin) that wins.

The internationalists fell fighting. And in that resistance to the counter-revolution, social-democratic at first and then fascist and Stalinist, they showed great passion and courage. It was not enough. When Lenin, summarising in a single sentence his idea of the party, wrote that without revolutionary theory there is no revolutionary movement, it was no mere catchphrase. He raises, if anything, the fundamental question: that retreat following the defeat, which saved only the honour of brave militants, was so disastrous precisely because of the failure to assimilate the strategy. Passion is not enough. To face the communist struggle in the long periods of imperialist development, the armoured passion of reason, disciplined and anchored to the theory is necessary.

Lotta Comunista, January 2020