Lenin and Internationalism

“I think that after five years of the Russian Revolution the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike, is to sit down and study... We must take advantage of every moment of respite from fighting, from war, to study, and to study from scratch.” Lenin

Marxism is based on internationalism or it is nothing. This approach has nothing to do with sentimentality, but is rooted in the international character of capitalism itself.

Capitalism has created a world market, a world division of labour and a worldwide working class. The capitalist system, through its development of industry, overthrew the narrow restraints of feudalism and created the nation state and world economy. Having developed world capitalism to its highest level, imperialism – by which the planet was ruled by a handful of giant monopolies – these assets turned into their opposites and became decisive obstacles to future development and progress. The First World War was a direct product of this stranglehold of the nation state and private ownership on the productive forces. Only the overthrow of world capitalism could put an end to this contradiction and eradicate these fetters.

Capitalism on a world scale had laid the material basis in terms of industry and technique for the development of world socialism and classless society. World revolution and international socialism were the basis of the teachings of Marx and Engels, and fully understood by Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks.

On these sound principles, Marx had organised the First International in the 1860s. “The emancipation of the workers is not a local, nor a national, but an international problem”, wrote Marx in the statutes of the International. Although the First International made a great start, the collapse of the Paris Commune (1871), the intrigues of the anarchists, and the economic upswing of that time, caused Marx and Engels to transfer the headquarters of the First International to New York, and later to temporarily dissolve the organisation in 1876.

“The First International (1864-72) laid the foundation for the international organisation of the workers for the preparation of a revolutionary attack upon capital”, remarked Lenin. In 1889, the Second International was born, which now embraced mass organisations of the proletariat in Germany, France, Italy and other countries. Unfortunately, the spectacular growth of the International took place within the framework of an organic upswing of capitalism, which affected the leading layers, and introduced opportunist currents into its ranks. “The Second International (1889 – 1914)”, continued Lenin, “was the international organisation of the proletarian movement whose growth was extensive rather than intensive, and therefore resulted in a temporary increase of opportunistic tendencies, which finally led to the shameful downfall of this International...” The First World War witnessed the collapse of the International, with the leaders of each national section abandoning internationalism and siding with their own capitalist class. The Second International, in the words of Rosa Luxemburg, became a “stinking corpse”.

From 1914 onwards Lenin conducted an open struggle against those leaders who had betrayed the cause, social-chauvinists, as he called them. Together with a handful of internationalists, he fought to maintain the clean banner of international socialism and prepare the ground for a new International of the working class. For Lenin, the international was in essence programme, policy and method. Under these conditions of world war, the internationalists – Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg, John MacLean, James Connolly and others – were reduced to tiny groups, isolated from the working class. At the Zimmerwald conference in 1915, Lenin joked that all the internationalists in the world could be fitted into four stage coaches. But events would change all that. Within two years, imperialism would break at “its weakest link” in Tsarist Russia.

History does not proceed in a straight line, but according to the dialectical laws of uneven and combined development. A less advanced country absorbs the material and intellectual conquests of the more advanced, not as a carbon replica, but in a contradictory fashion. The grafting of the most advanced techniques onto pre-capitalist developments, as in Russia, led to a strange combination of different stages in the historical process, and assumed an uneven and combined character. The tasks of the bourgeois-democratic revolution could now only be resolved by the coming to power of the working class.

In 1917, the February Revolution overthrew Tsarism. Despite Russia’s backwardness, foreign capital had established modern industries within her borders, and with it a virgin working class open to revolutionary ideas. The February Revolution, as in 1905, saw the establishment of Soviets, or workers’ councils, which constituted “dual power” up until the successful second revolution in October. In the preceding nine months, under the leadership of Lenin, the Bolsheviks were able to win a majority of the working class and poor peasants to its side and take power under the slogan “All Power to the Soviets!”

From the very outset, since his first involvement in revolutionary politics, Lenin held true to an internationalist line. He tied the very fate of the Russian Revolution, even in its bourgeois-democratic form, to the European socialist revolution. An internationalist to his very core, he had no time for petty nationalism within the revolutionary party. Even before the October Revolution, at the March Party conference, Lenin had proposed to change the name of the party from Russian Social Democratic Labour Party to simply Communist Party. “The name social democrat is inaccurate. Don’t hang on to an old name which is rotten through and through”, he said.

Despite the later distortions of the Stalinists, the Bolshevik leaders did not have any perspective of “Socialism in One Country”, which had nothing in common with Marxism, but regarded the Russian Revolution as the beginning of the world revolution. If the revolution were isolated, it would be crushed. The material basis for socialism did not exist in one country, let alone backward Russia. Only world revolution could save the Russian Revolution, as Lenin repeatedly explained on numerous occasions.

Four months after the Revolution, on 7 March 1918 Lenin explained, “At all events, under all conceivable circumstances, if the German Revolution does not come, we are doomed.” A few weeks later: “Our backwardness has put us in the front-line, and we shall perish unless we are capable of holding out until we shall receive powerful support from workers who have risen in revolt in other countries.” The following month, in April, he stated, “But we shall achieve victory only together with all the workers of other countries, of the whole world...” In May, Lenin states again, “To wait until the working classes carry out a revolution on an international scale means that everyone will remain suspended in mid-air... It may begin with brilliant success in one country and then go through agonising periods, since final victory is only possible on a world scale, and only by the joint efforts of the workers of all countries.” These views were expressed on a regular basis right up until Lenin’s death. Only in the autumn of that year, 1924, did Stalin come out with the anti-Marxist idea of “Socialism in One Country”, reflecting the interests of the conservative bureaucracy that had become dominant in the party and state.

In fact, such was Lenin’s internationalism that he was even prepared to sacrifice the Russian Revolution for a successful revolution in Germany. He was an internationalist not in words, but in deeds. The Stalinist idea of “building socialism in Russia” never entered his head, or anyone else’s for that matter!

The revolution went through “agonising periods” with every international defeat and setback of the world revolution. In November 1918, revolution had succeeded in overthrowing the German and Austria-Hungarian monarchies and the Empire collapsed. Unfortunately, there was no Bolshevik Party to lead the revolution and it was defeated. In January 1919, Luxemburg and Liebknecht were murdered by the counter-revolution. The short-lived Hungarian revolution was also overthrown. “Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no revolutionary party”, stated Lenin.

Lenin realised that the revolutions in other countries were going to be far more difficult that at first thought. Mass revolutionary parties had to be built, and the leaders had to be educated and trained. Only then could there be hope of success. A new Third International had to be established, especially as attempts were underway to resurrect the old corpse of the Second International. In January 1919 Lenin addressed an open letter to the workers of Europe and America urging them to found the Third International. Within a few months, a founding Congress took place in Moscow, attended by 35 delegates and 15 visitors. The relative small number attending was due mainly to the imperialist blockade and the extreme difficulties in reaching Moscow. Nevertheless, the Manifesto, drafted by Trotsky, concluded: “Under the banner of Workers’ Soviets, of the revolutionary struggle for power and the dictatorship of the proletariat, under the banner of the Third International, workers of all countries unite!” The Third (Communist) International became the new World Party of Socialist Revolution.

“The Third International”, stated Lenin to the Congress, “took over the work of the Second International, cut off its opportunistic, social-chauvinist, bourgeois and petit-bourgeois rubbish, and began to carry into effect the dictatorship of the proletariat.

“The international union of parties heading the greatest revolution in the world, the movement of the proletariat for the overthrow of capital, now rests upon the firmest ground; namely, the existence of several Soviet republics, which are putting into practice, on an international scale, the dictatorship of the proletariat, its victory over capitalism.”

“The International World Revolution is near”, wrote Lenin, “although revolutions are never made to order. The imperialists will set fire to the whole world and will start a conflagration in which they themselves will perish if they dare to quell the Revolution.”

Soviet Russia constituted a “besieged fortress” of the world revolution, surrounded by hostile imperialist powers hell-bent on destroying it. The military defence of the Revolution was paramount. Trotsky was given responsibility for forging a mass Red Army that could defeat the Whites and the armies of foreign imperialist intervention. The whole of Soviet society was put on a war footing. This was the period of “War Communism”.

Under gruelling conditions, the young workers’ state managed to hold on by a thread. Workers internationally rallied to the cause of the October Revolution in a display of international solidarity. Eventually, the imperialists were beaten and forced to retreat, licking their wounds in the process. Once these armies were defeated on Russian soil, the Soviet state quickly mopped up the remnants of the White armies. The defeat of imperialist intervention came however at a very high cost. The fate of the Revolution was in the balance on many occasions.

The importance of spreading the socialist revolution was of critical importance given the terrible chaos within Russia created by world war, civil war and foreign intervention. After the removal of imperialist forces, the Soviet regime quickly changed course and introduced the New Economic Policy in order to stimulate the battered economy.

In Europe, following the subsidence of the revolutionary wave, a certain equilibrium emerged. “We told ourselves back in 1919 that it was a question of months, but now we say that it is perhaps a question of several years”, explained Trotsky. The Bolsheviks used this breathing space to shore up the regime and better prepare the forces of world revolution. With the founding of the Third International, there developed significant ultra-left tendencies within its ranks. These were mainly answered by Lenin and Trotsky at the Comintern’s Second Congress in 1920, which unlike the First, were composed of large Communist Parties and organisations. It was at this time that Lenin wrote his famous work “Left-Wing Communism, an Infantile Disorder”. These ultra-left tendencies reached their height with the so-called March Action in 1921 in Germany, where the young German CP attempted to provoke a premature uprising. This resulted in a big defeat for the German party, which put in jeopardy the prospects for successful revolution in the west.

The consequences of the March Action was discussed at the Third Congress of the Comintern, and was roundly condemned by Lenin, who together with Trotsky, were regarded as on the “right” wing. “Prepare the struggle. The enemy is strong because he has ruled for centuries and is therefore conscious of its strength and anxious to preserve it. The enemy knows how to fight a civil war. The Third Congress of the Communist International warns all Communist Parties that the proletarian struggle for power is threatened by the fact that the ruling and propertied classes have a well-thought-out strategy, while the working class is only beginning to develop a strategy. The March events in Germany have shown how dangerous it is for the ranks of the working class, the Communist vanguard of the proletariat, to be forced to fight the enemy before the proletarian masses have begun to move”, warned the Congress.

The Third Congress moved on to develop the tactic of the United Front and the need through patient work in the mass organisations to win over the masses to the side of socialist revolution. “Every factory must become a stronghold of the revolution”, stated the Congress theses.

Unlike under Stalinism, at this time the young Communist Parties were schooled and educated by strength of argument to follow the correct Bolshevik course. The Russians, due to their political experience, certainly had a moral authority within the International. They did not need to wave the big stick. The Congresses were a scene of healthy debate, where lessons were learned and a common line was collectively hammered out.

The policy of United Front, of marching separately, but striking together, became a marked success in quickly building up the Communist Parties, especially in Germany. The German party was the biggest CP outside of the Soviet Union. In early 1923, a revolutionary crisis began to mature in Germany arising from the French occupation of the Ruhr. Inflation took off and reached levels of hyperinflation. Living standards plummeted. Throughout the summer, revolutionary crisis gripped the whole of Germany and many looked to the CP to offer a way forward.

The German party was urged by the International to make plans for an uprising. However, the party leadership was gripped with vacillation, as was the Bolshevik party on the eve of the October Revolution. Unfortunately, with both Lenin and Trotsky ill, the German leaders were told by Stalin and Zinoviev to proceed cautiously, even to wait until the attack of the counter-revolution! However, a revolutionary crisis cannot last indefinitely. Revolution has its own laws. When everything is in the balance, the time for decisive action can be telescoped into a matter of weeks or even days. Events will not wait for those who prevaricate! Unfortunately, the German CP leaders dithered and the revolutionary opportunity was missed. The bourgeois recovered their nerves and the crisis subsided. The failure of the German revolution was a colossal blow to the Russian masses, which desperately awaited revolution in the west.

The German defeat, together with Lenin’s death in January 1924, combined to strengthen the growing bureaucratic cancer eating away at the Soviet regime. The consolidation of power into the hands of the “troika” of Zinoviev, Kamenev and Stalin, and the campaign of denigration against Trotsky, constituted a turning point in the degeneration of the revolution. In effect, power was passing into the hands of Stalin and the bureaucratic apparatus. “Reflecting at the time”, wrote Ted Grant on the occasion of the dissolution of the Communist International, “perhaps unconsciously, the interests of the reactionary and conservative bureaucracy which was just beginning to raise itself above the Soviet masses, Stalin for the first time in 1924 came forward with the utopian and anti-Leninist theory of ‘socialism in one country’. This ‘theory’ sprang directly from the defeat, which the revolution had suffered in Germany. It indicated a turning away from the principles of revolutionary internationalism on which the Russian Revolution had been based and on which the Communist International was founded.”

The glorious Third International, under the leadership of Lenin and Trotsky, was the instrument of world revolution. With the advent of Stalinism, the International became increasingly the mouthpiece for the foreign policy of the Russian bureaucracy, ready for any twist and turn that was demanded by Moscow. The separate Communist Parties under Stalinist domination became simply border guards for the Kermlin. As Trotsky had brilliantly forecast in 1928, the adoption of the theory of ‘socialism in one country’ would result in the reformist and nationalist degeneration of the Communist Parties. In June 1943, as a gesture to the Allies, Stalin unceremoniously and without consultation or a vote, dissolved the Communist International. At the same time, the Internationale was abolished as the official anthem of the Soviet state, and replaced by a song in praise of Great Russia.

Leninism lived on in the struggle of Trotsky’s Left Opposition. An essential part of this struggle is proletarian internationalism and the fight for world socialism, epitomised by the words of the Communist Manifesto: “Workers of All Lands, Unite!”