The Communist International: A critical analysis

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Introduction by Richard Fidler

October 18, 2021 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Life on the Left — The soviet seizure of power under Bolshevik leadership, in October 1917, surprised many socialists outside of Russia, particularly in Western Europe where the tendency was to anticipate socialist victory through the election of a socialist majority and parliamentary adoption of the kind of program outlined by the prominent Marxist intellectual Karl Kautsky in The Road to Power.

A numerical minority in Soviet Russia – as confirmed in the Constituent Assembly elections immediately after the soviet victory – the Bolsheviks thought that under the newly-established “dictatorship of the proletariat” (the capitalists being excluded from any legal possibility of retaking control of government) they could, over time, win majority support among the peasantry, about 80% of the country’s population, through eliminating the landlord class and providing government support to the new peasant economy while strengthening the working class’s leading role through industrialization and state planning.

The Bolsheviks, however, were convinced that their regime could endure only if socialist revolution soon ensued in the more developed countries of Western Europe. Their highest hopes centered on Germany, where many workers were seeking to recover from their country’s defeat in a war supported by the leaders of their mass Social Democratic party. A socialist victory in Germany would provide needed assistance to the new soviet regime in Russia. And it was imminent, they thought.

The Bolsheviks were therefore quick to initiate the formation of a new global revolutionary formation, the Communist International, or Comintern, aimed at replacing the reformist and pro-imperialist Socialist International. The Comintern’s debates and decisions in the early years, as documented in the excellent volumes translated and edited by John Riddell and Mike Taber,[1] shaped the contours of revolutionary Marxist politics throughout the 20th century and indeed since, although as an organization the Comintern failed to supplant Social Democracy and fell victim to authoritarian Stalinist monolithism early in its history.

Socialists today still debate the path to governmental power and the process of transition to an alternative socialist system, a task made even more urgent in conditions of impending climate catastrophe under capitalist rule. They can learn much from the experience of the Communist International.

A half-century ago, Fernando Claudín critically assessed the record of the Comintern in his two-volume work The Communist Movement.[2] A long-time leader of the Spanish Communist party (PCE), Claudín had broken with other party leaders in the 1960s over conflicting perspectives for the country when fascist dictator Francisco Franco died. While they called for a “democratic revolution” initially limited to abolishing semi-feudal and other backward institutions, Claudín and his supporters thought conditions were ripening to mount a broad opposition platform oriented toward socialist revolution in the Spanish state. Claudín was expelled from the PCE in 1964. He later evolved toward the Social-Democratic PSOE in the post-Franco transition, and died in 1990.

His major work, authored in the early 1970s, was critical, inter alia, of the early Comintern’s failure to appreciate the strength of electoralist and parliamentary illusions of workers under late capitalism based on their democratic conquests such as the achievement of universal suffrage. In my opinion his analysis offers many insights into the challenges facing the early Communists and the strategy and tactics they adopted while he faults them nevertheless for often failing to question some fundamental assumptions.

The following are extracts I have scanned from Chapter 2 of his book, entitled “The Crisis of Theory.” The book is long out-of-print, although a few copies may be obtained from antiquarian book outlets. The other extracts will follow soon. I have omitted many of Claudín’s often lengthy endnotes and added a few of my own, which I have initialed.

[1] See the multivolume series edited by Riddell in the collection The Communist International in Lenin’s Time (Pathfinder Press), followed by the proceedings of the Third and Fourth Comintern congresses and related plenary sessions, available from Haymarket Books.

[2] Subtitled From Comintern to Cominform (Monthly Review Press, 1975). Part One, “The Crisis of the Communist International,” was translated by Brian Pearce. Part Two, “The Zenith of Stalinism,” was translated by Francis MacDonagh.


No social order is ever destroyed before all the productive forces for which it is sufficient have been developed, and new superior relations of production never replace older ones before the material conditions for their existence have matured within the womb of the old society.



For Lenin, as for Marx and Engels, the socialist revolution was essentially a world revolution, even if it was not possible for the working class to take power simultaneously in every country, or even, except in unusual circumstances, in several countries at once. This world-wide nature of the socialist revolution followed, for Marx, from the very nature of modern productive forces, which makes capitalism a world system, an economic system that tends towards the integration of human society on the planetary scale. A fortiori, socialism, being the product, in the last analysis, of a transition of the productive forces to a still higher level, cannot really exist otherwise than as a world system. Hence the necessity for the revolution to win through in the advanced countries ‘when a great social revolution shall have mastered the results of the bourgeois epoch, the market of the world and the modern powers of production, and subjected them to the common control of the most advanced peoples, then only’, Marx emphasized, ‘will human progress cease to resemble that hideous pagan idol, who would not drink the nectar but from the skulls of the slain.’

The version according to which Lenin revised Marx on this point, by establishing theoretically that it was possible to build socialism in one country taken separately, does not correspond to historical truth: it was manufactured by Stalin in order to furnish the support of authoritative arguments to his own theses on the question. The present Soviet leaders have ‘developed’ these theses so far as to proclaim the possibility of building Communism in the USSR even if capitalism continues to dominate a considerable proportion of the world’s productive forces.

Stalin’s manipulation of Lenin’s ideas on this subject was facilitated by the very widespread confusion between two concepts which are commonly formulated in the same terms: the concept of the socialist revolution as a social revolution, as the socialist transformation of economic and social structures and of political and cultural superstructures; and the concept of the socialist revolution as a political revolution, marked with the distinctive feature of the capture of power by the working class. The first content of the concept ‘socialist revolution’ wholly includes the second: every social revolution, whether socialist or bourgeois, includes as a necessary stage a political revolution, the taking of power by a new class. The second content, however, includes the first only partly: every political revolution — unless it is merely a coup d’état that transfers power from one group to another within the same ruling stratum — has a more or less developed social content; and this is all the more so when the political revolution in question is the one implied by the capture of power by the working class. But this politico-social content is only the first stone of a building the construction of which is subject to laws and conditions different from those that made it possible to lay that first stone. In order to distinguish between the two contents of the concept ‘revolution’, Lenin brought in the expressions ‘revolution in the broad sense’ and ‘revolution in the narrow sense’, and these I shall make use of from now on.

The difference of content between the socialist revolution in the broad sense and the socialist revolution in the narrow sense includes, among other fundamental aspects, a difference of space and time. In the first case, the space is world-wide and the time covers an entire epoch of history; in the second, the space is national (or, more precisely, country-wide) and the time is reduced to a brief period of history. When Marx and Engels speak of the possibility of a victory of the socialist revolution in some particular country, taken separately, they are employing the concept in its narrow sense. They do not contemplate the hypothesis that this victory may remain isolated, within a nationally confined space, for a long period. This problem was thrown up by practice itself, when the proletarian revolution was crushed everywhere except in Russia, in the years following the war of 1914-18, while Soviet power became consolidated. The failure of Marxists, from Marx to Lenin, to consider this eventuality was due to the fact that their theoretical conception of the socialist revolution as necessarily a world revolution caused them to rule out any such possibility.

Starting from this conception of theirs, the assumption made by Marx and Engels about how the socialist revolution would develop concretely went as follows. This revolution would cover a whole period of history and would be a long process, not an act — a process in which structural transformations affecting politics, culture and so on would follow one another and overlap on a world-wide scale; but the beginning of this process, the essential condition for it to start, was a victory of the revolution (in its narrow sense) in the economically most advanced countries. And although Marx and Engels never supposed that this victory could occur simultaneously in all those countries, they nevertheless saw it as a succession of socialist political revolutions following each other closely and being closely dependent on each other. As we shall see, Lenin did not depart in essentials from this overall conception.

Owing to the changes that took place in the situation in Europe in the 1840s and in the second half of the nineteenth century, Marx and Engels put forward a series of more precise prognostications regarding the way the revolutionary process would begin. While keeping to their central thesis, namely that the socialist revolution would begin in the most advanced countries, they considered the possibility that other types of revolution — bourgeois-democratic, national-liberation, etc. — which might break out in the backward countries of Europe could serve as a prelude to the socialist revolutions in the advanced countries, eventually becoming merged with these in a single revolutionary process. In the 1840s they thought that the German revolution might play this role; in the last quarter of the nineteenth century they transferred their hopes on to Russia. Echoing Marx, Kautsky wrote in 1902 that ‘the centre of revolutionary thought and revolutionary action is shifting more and more to the Slavs’, and he saw in the Russian revolution, the warning signs of which were already undeniably visible, ‘the storm that will break the ice of reaction and irresistibly bring with it a new and happy spring for the nations’.

During the revolution of 1905-7 Lenin reflected upon the dialectical interdependence between the Russian revolution and the socialist revolution which, as he saw it, in common with Kautsky and other ‘orthodox’ theoreticians of the Second International, had matured in Europe. The way in which Lenin understood this interdependence is of capital importance for appreciating the attitudes he took up in 1917 and after October. Not only did he consider that ‘the Russian political revolution’ would be made ‘the prelude to the socialist revolution in Europe’,[1] he also thought that the fate of the Russian revolution depended on its nature as a ‘prelude’, that is, on its being followed by a socialist revolution in the West. This was the conclusion to which Lenin was led from his starting-point in an analysis of the revolutionary process in Russia. As this process went deeper, he thought in 1905, the liberal bourgeoisie and the well-to-do peasants, and even a section of the middle peasants, would go over to counter-revolutionary positions. A new crisis would break out, in which the proletariat, while defending the democratic gains won in the first phase of the revolution, would now put forward the socialist revolution as its immediate aim. In this new phase, had it come to that, wrote Lenin, defeat would have ‘been as inevitable as the defeat of the German revolutionary party in 1849-50, or the French proletariat in 1871, had the European socialist proletariat not come to the assistance of the Russian proletariat’. Given this aid, however, ‘the Russian proletariat can win a second victory. The cause is no longer hopeless. The second victory will be the socialist revolution in Europe. The European workers will show us “how to do it” and then together with them we shall bring about the socialist revolution.’[2] In order to be able to see with such assurance this prospect before the Russian revolution, Lenin needed to have confidence in the revolutionary maturity of the proletariat in the West. This predisposition on his part accounts, perhaps, for the optimism characteristic of the views he expressed in this period: ‘The masses of workers in Germany, as well as in other countries, are becoming welded ever more strongly into an army of revolution, and this army will deploy its forces in the not far distant future — for the revolution is gaining momentum both in Germany and in other countries.’[3] Or: ‘Only the blind can fail to see that socialism is now growing apace among the working class in Britain, that socialism is once again becoming a mass movement in that country, that social revolution is approaching in Great Britain.’[4] Or again: ‘This figure [the circulation of the weekly Appeal to Reason] . . . shows more clearly than long arguments the kind of revolution that is approaching in America.’[5]

After 1905 Lenin also included in his overall vision of the revolution ‘the awakening of Asia’.

Following the 1905 movement in Russia, the democratic revolution spread to the whole of Asia — to Turkey, Persia, China. Ferment is growing in British India. A significant development is the spread of the revolutionary democratic movement to the Dutch East Indies… World capitalism and the 1905 movement in Russia have finally aroused Asia… The awakening of Asia and the beginning of the struggle for power of the advanced proletariat of Europe are a symbol of the new phase in world history that began early this century.[6]

The Russian revolution was no longer the ‘prelude’ to the revolution in the West alone but also to the revolution in the East.

Lenin, as a revolutionary leader in what was ‘in very many and very essential respects . . . undoubtedly an Asian country and, what is more, one of the most benighted, medieval and shamefully backward of Asian countries’, understood better than the Marxists of advanced capitalist Europe the meaning and the implications of the ‘awakening of Asia’ though without getting free of the ‘Eurocentrist’ standpoint that was as typical of the Second International as it had been of Marx and Engels. Referring to the Chinese revolution led by Sun Yat-sen, Lenin asks:

Does that mean, then, that the materialist West has hopelessly decayed and that light shines only from the mystic, religious East? No, quite the opposite. It means that the East has definitely taken the Western path, that new hundreds of millions of people will from now on share in the struggle for the ideals which the West has already worked out for itself. What has decayed is the Western bourgeoisie, which is already confronted by its gravedigger, the proletariat. But in Asia there is still a bourgeoisie capable of championing sincere, militant, consistent democracy, a worthy comrade of France’s great men of the Enlightenment and great leaders of the close of the eighteenth century.

Regarding as ‘altogether reactionary’ the dream according to which ‘capitalism can be “prevented” in China and that a “social revolution” there will be made easier by the country’s backwardness, and so on’, Lenin compares Sun Yat-sen’s programme to that of Russia’s Narodniks. The Chinese revolution, in Lenin’s view, will be bourgeois agrarian in type, and a long period will have to elapse before the question of abolishing bourgeois production-relations arises.[7]

Thus, before the war of 1914, Lenin had determined the essential elements of his strategic schema of the world revolution, in which the Russian revolution constituted the prelude and the link between the socialist revolution in the West and the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the East. This theoretical construct of his linked together three types of revolution: directly socialist revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries (Western Europe and the USA); the Russian bourgeois-democratic revolution, which, taking place in a situation where a relatively large and concentrated proletariat was present, could proceed without any interruption, given the help of the victorious proletariat of Europe, to develop into the socialist revolution; and the revolutions in the East, where, as there was practically no proletariat, a protracted phase of capitalism sui generis would be necessary. The essential agent in the grand combination of revolutionary forces foreseen by Lenin continued to be the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries. They it was who would have to show the others ‘how to do it’. On them it depended whether the Russian revolution would be able to unfold fully, to the end, and whether the Oriental revolutions, once the proletariat had developed in those countries, would in their turn be able to go forward to socialism. And, as we have already seen, Lenin had no doubt that the Western proletariat possessed this revolutionary capacity. His conception of the world revolution thus remained in essentials that of Marx and Engels, though perceived from the angle of the Russian revolution.

Until he wrote his famous ‘April Theses’, Lenin did not think that the Russian working-class could take power before the working-class of the West. The change of outlook he then revealed was supported by Trotsky but resisted by some well-known Bolshevik leaders who clung to the party’s traditional line, according to which conditions in Russia did not permit the proletarian revolution to start there before it had begun in capitalist Europe.[8] Lenin’s new attitude was not inspired solely by the unprecedented situation of ‘dual power’ created after the February revolution; it was also based on conviction that revolution was imminent on the European and the world scale, and that the taking of power by the Russian proletariat would merely be the first act in this European and world-wide revolution. Lenin maintained, in defiance of his adversaries: ‘The Russian revolution of February-March 1917 was the beginning of the transformation of the imperialist war into civil war. This revolution took the first step towards ending the war; but it requires a second step, namely, the transfer of state power to the proletariat, to make the end of the war a certainty. This will be the beginning of a “break-through” on a world-wide scale, a break-through in the front of capitalist interests.’[9] And he asserted that ‘the proletariat, as represented by its class-conscious vanguard, stands for . . . the development of a world workers’ revolution, a revolution which is clearly developing also in Germany, and for terminating the war by means of such a revolution... The world situation is growing more and more involved. The only way out is a world workers’ revolution ...’[10] When, on 23 October 1917, the Bolshevik Central Committee met and took the historic decision to prepare for armed insurrection, the resolution which explained why the moment was opportune stressed that the socialist revolution was growing throughout Europe and there was danger of a separate peace being signed between the imperialist powers with the aim of crushing the Russian revolution before the European socialist revolution could come into play...

... Lenin’s confidence regarding the imminence of the world revolution was organically connected with the analysis of imperialism that he had made in 1915-16, basing himself on the researches of Hobson, Hilferding and others, as well as on Bukharin’s study of the subject. His conclusion, so far as the connection between imperialism and the revolution is concerned, can be summed up in these expressions he uses: ‘imperialism is the eve of the socialist revolution’, it is ‘moribund capitalism’.[11] Today, after fifty years of capitalism’s ‘death-agony’, some Soviet theoreticians — inspired, apparently, by the pious desire to safeguard Lenin’s infallibility — claim that by ‘moribund’ Lenin only meant to say that imperialism was capitalism ‘in transition’. But all Lenin’s writings of this period show that he was using this expression in its strictest and most ordinary sense.

The October victory looked like the first great confirmation of Lenin’s schema: the world front had been broken through, and broken through where the ‘April Theses’ had foreseen that this would happen. Moreover, the terrible situation in which the Russian revolution found itself in 1918, compelled to accept the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, seemed to confirm another forecast of Lenin’s: the Russian revolution was doomed unless it spread to the West. In November of the same year the German revolution (which, at first sight, presented a pattern suggestively similar to the Russian revolution of February 1917: overthrow of the monarchy, workers’ councils, reformist hegemony in the government, opposition down below) came on the scene to provide brilliant final confirmation, apparently, of Lenin’s assumptions. The real world seemed to be conforming to the world-as-thought with almost Hegelian rigour.

As soon as he received the first news of the German crisis, Lenin sent orders to Sverdlov, chairman of the Executive Committee of the Soviets. ‘The international revolution,’ he wrote, ‘has come so close in one week that it has to be reckoned with as an event of the next few days,’ and he urged Sverdlov to organize aid for the German workers, including ‘military aid’. ‘We must have by the spring an army of three millions to help the international workers’ revolution.’[12] Lenin was more than ever convinced that the hour of the ‘final struggle’ had sounded; but there was a cloud darkening this horizon: ‘Europe’s greatest misfortune and danger is that it has no revolutionary party.’[13] And without a revolutionary party the revolution could not win.

This attitude of Lenin’s may seem incongruous if we look at it in the light of a version of his thought that is very often found among some ‘Marxologists’ and ‘Leninologists’, according to whom Leninism owed more to Blanqui than to Marx. If the revolution is the work of a conscious minority, organized and determined — which was Lenin’s theory, according to this version — how could Lenin see the revolution taking place while at the same time noting the absence of a revolutionary party? Who, then, had ‘organized’ this revolution? Actually, Lenin’s conception of the revolution does not differ from that of Marx and Engels, for whom the social phenomenon called revolution is comparable to natural phenomena, in so far as it does not depend on the will, taken in isolation, of individuals, classes and parties; revolution is the independent result of all of these separate wills, the product of their contradictory interaction, of the extremely complex articulation of economic, political, social, cultural and other factors, even if, ‘in the last analysis’, the determining element in this diachronic-synchronic totality is the dialectic of the economic structures. This is perhaps why all revolutions up to the present have begun for apparently fortuitous reasons and why the development of each of them has displayed very original features as compared with its predecessors. Freely exaggerating the similarity between revolution and natural phenomena, Engels wrote in a letter to Marx on 13 February 1851 (after, that is, Marx’s conception of revolution had reached the mature stage expressed in the Manifesto, and had undergone the test of 1848):

‘A revolution is a pure natural phenomenon which takes place more under the influence of physical laws than under that of the laws which govern the development of society in normal times. Or, more precisely, these laws acquire in times of revolution a much more physical character: the material force of necessity is manifested more intensely. And inasmuch as one comes forward as the representative of a party one will be swept into this maelstrom of natural inevitability.’[14]

In 1918 Lenin considered that the ‘maelstrom’ was present there and then, drawing the entire world into itself, and that all that was needed was a party capable of inserting itself into this maelstrom as the conscious representative of ‘natural inevitability’.

Lenin’s vision of the march of the world revolution at the time of the German revolution of November 1918 can be summarized like this:

(1) The contradictions of the imperialist system have brought about — through their outcome, the world war — the complete maturing of the objective premises (on the plane of economic structures and of social forces alike) for the international socialist revolution;

(2) The revolution has begun where the concentration of these contradictions involves the biggest explosive charge (where oppression by the Tsarist autocracy is combined with the contradictions between capitalist and pre-capitalist structures, with the ruin caused by the war, the oppression of the non-Russian nationalities, and so on) and where, at the same time, a political agent exists which has been trained and prepared on the theoretical, political and organizational planes, namely, the Bolshevik party;

(3) In inevitable obedience to the international character of the contradictions that have engendered it, the revolution is beginning to spread into the advanced capitalist countries of Europe. Victory on this terrain will be decisive for the world revolution. The Russian revolution will be reinforced, the proletariat of North America will follow Europe’s example, and the liberation movement that has begun in the colonies will see its triumph assured;

(4) In Europe, however, the conscious and organized agent, the revolutionary party of the Bolshevik type, is missing. Unless such a party is created, the fate of the world revolution is in danger.

The operational conclusion that emerges from this schema is obvious. The revolutionary party must at all costs be created, on the European and the world scale; and this must be done before the favourable objective situation changes. The Bolshevik leaders were engaged in a dramatic race against time. At a not very representative gathering, and ignoring the contrary opinion expressed by the Spartacists (the revolutionary group of greatest importance after the Bolsheviks, at that time), the Communist International, the ‘world party of revolution’, was founded in March 1919.

In closing this First Congress of the Comintern Lenin said: ‘The victory of the proletarian revolution on a world scale is assured. The founding of an international Soviet republic is on the way.’ And, the same day, at a meeting of the foreign delegates with leaders of the Bolshevik party, he assured those present that they would live to see world-wide victory: ‘The comrades present in this hall saw the founding of the first Soviet republic; now they see the founding of the Third, Communist International, and they will all see the founding of the World Federative Republic of Soviets .’[15] A year and a half later, when the Second Congress of the Comintern met, Lenin’s forecasts had been sadly rebuffed by reality, but it was still possible to suppose that the world revolution was ‘there’. True, the Hungarian Soviet revolution had been crushed, together with the ephemeral Workers’ Republic in Bavaria, and the German revolution had moved on to the rails of the very bourgeois-democratic Weimar Constitution. Nevertheless, the situation continued to be highly unstable in Germany and throughout Central Europe, as also in the Balkans, Italy and Spain — and, above all, the Red Army was at the gates of Warsaw. These last hopes were to collapse very soon. When the Third Congress of the Comintern met, in the summer of 1921, it had begun very clearly to appear that the ‘final struggle’ would have to be postponed. The real world was separating itself from the world-as-thought. Something had cracked in Lenin’s theoretical schema, and this ‘something’ could not but have serious consequences for the tool that had been created precisely to serve this schema, namely, the Communist International.


The defeat suffered by the attempts made at proletarian revolution in Western Europe after the war of 1914-18 was due to a highly complex set of factors and circumstances; but from this diversity it is possible to select one incontestable fact which was of fundamental importance, namely, that the majority of the European working class, even where the crisis went farthest, as in Germany, continued to follow their traditional political and trade-union organizations and not the new revolutionary party. In one way or another this was acknowledged in all the analyses made by Lenin and the Comintern, when they alleged that the basic factor in the defeat was ‘betrayal’ by the reformist leaders. This explanation calls out for another to be given: why did the workers follow these ‘traitor’ leaders?

The confidence Lenin showed in the victorious advance of the world revolution contains an assumption that is implicit even when it is not clearly expressed: the proletariat of the West will soon turn their backs on the opportunist leaders and come over to the side of the revolutionary party when this takes the field. This was the meaning of his statements, quoted above, at the end of the inaugural congress of the Comintern. Obviously, without this presupposition Lenin’s theses on international revolution in the near future would have been mere phrase-mongering: and nobody was more hostile than Lenin to the ‘revolutionary phrase’. Of course Lenin did not imagine that the working class would go over to revolutionary positions automatically, through the mere effect of objective conditions. But he did think that the working masses would be won for the positions of the Bolshevik party very quickly, once this party had been launched, even if it were very much in the minority to start with. The same phenomenon that had occurred in Russia between February and October would be repeated elsewhere.

Where this question was concerned, indeed, Lenin transferred to the European and even the world process of events the pattern that had been followed by the February-to-October process in Russia. Referring to the German revolution, he wrote: ‘Once again it is here revealed that the general course of the proletarian revolution is the same throughout the world. First the spontaneous formation of Soviets, then their spread and development, and then the appearance of the practical problem: Soviets, or National Assembly, or Constituent Assembly, or the bourgeois parliamentary system; utter confusion among the leaders, and finally — the proletarian revolution.’ Lenin puts on the same plane the German ‘Independent Socialists’ and the Russian Mensheviks, the struggle for the leadership of the workers’ councils in Germany and that which had taken place for the leadership of the Soviets in Russia.[16] He draws a parallel between the repression of the Spartacists in January 1919 and the ‘July days’ of 1917 in Russia: ‘We know from experience how quickly such “victories” of the bourgeoisie and their henchmen cure the people of their illusions about bourgeois democracy, “universal suffrage”, and so forth.’[17] In short, the German ‘November’ was identified with the Russian ‘February’, and just as the Bolsheviks, from being a mere minority in February, had within a few months won the support of the proletariat and peasantry of Russia, so the Spartacists, from being a small minority in November 1918, would win the support of the masses in order to lead them to the German ‘October’, and would do this even more quickly than had happened in Russia: ‘The German revolution is developing in the same way as ours, but at a faster pace.’[18] Lenin’s genius did not escape the temptation that lies in wait for all victorious revolutionary leaders, namely, that of making ‘their’ revolution the model to which all subsequent revolutions must conform. But what it is interesting to note here in this transposition of the Russian model is Lenin’s grave underestimation of the influence of reformist politics and the reformist mentality among the proletariat of the advanced countries. I do not mean to say that Lenin underestimated the wide extent of the reformist phenomenon, but rather its depth, the firm roots that it possessed in the working-class masses of the West.

This underestimation of the penetration of reformism into the Western proletariat was a symptom of theoretical shortcomings that were to have an effect on the political plane in the way that the new revolutionary party was created, the way its structures and mode of working were conceived and its tasks worked out. The root of these shortcomings can be found, it seems to me, in Lenin’s analysis of capitalism in its monopoly phase. As I have mentioned already, Lenin, like Rosa Luxemburg, and like Kautsky in his first period, saw world capitalism in the monopoly, imperialist stage as having reached a terminal situation. The world war, which led Kautsky to make a politico-doctrinal revision in which a penetrating understanding of the new structural phenomena of capitalism provided a foundation for opportunist political conclusions, had for Lenin the effect, on the contrary, of strengthening his belief. When analysing the contradictions of the system, Lenin tends to make much of their destructive side and little of their driving power — the role played by these contradictions as a factor in dynamizing and adapting the capitalist mechanism and transforming its structures. He appreciates accurately the process of capitalist concentration, the specific weight acquired by state monopoly capitalism in the system as a whole, the acceleration of this process owing to the war; but, for Lenin, all these structural changes result invariably in a linear intensification of the contradictions, a cumulative aggravation, which leads inevitably to the conclusion that the situation is hopeless — even if he elsewhere wrote that there can be no situation in which there is no way out for the bourgeoisie. He points out, very correctly, that the advanced degree to which production has become socialized creates the most favourable material foundations for the transition to socialism; he notes that this process provides capitalism with certain mechanisms of regulation and planning — but he underestimates the effect that these new instruments can have in reducing, within certain limits and in certain phases, the destructive role played by the system’s contradictions. The economic and trade-union conquests won by the working class in the decades preceding the war are seen by Lenin almost exclusively as achievements that thrust capitalism helplessly towards the edge of its grave. He thus fails to see that, at the same time, they illustrate the capacity possessed by advanced capitalism to digest some of these changes and to use them as factors in ‘rationalizing’ its economic mechanism, while simultaneously increasing its capacity to alienate. This type of analysis leads him to describe monopoly capitalism not merely as transitional (alluding to the high degree of socialization of production) but also as moribund. It is this type of analysis that causes him to consider that a rapid radicalization process is going on amid the European proletariat, profoundly undermining the influence of the reformist leaders. The ‘betrayal’ by these leaders during the war and the disasters that this has brought upon the masses must bring to completion, provided only a revolutionary group of the Bolshevik type is present to do the work of enlightenment, the split which is bound to occur between the leaders and the masses.

Lenin sees the economic basis of reformism in the labour movement most exclusively in colonial exploitation. As Stuart R. Schram and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse point out, the idea ‘that colonization would make it possible to improve the lot of the European workers and thus to delay social revolution in Europe was a belief shared, at the beginning of the twentieth century, by all those who had thought about the problem, whether they were socialists like Kautsky, Hilferding or Rosa Luxemburg, liberals like Hobson, or partisans of imperialism like Cecil Rhodes, who saw in the colonies a means for avoiding civil war’.[19] Lenin concurs in this explanation of opportunism in the working-class movement, but considers that, in the continental countries that joined in the colonial share-out only late in the day, the ‘corruption’ of the workers affects only a small minority, which he calls the ‘labour aristocracy’; while, as regards Britain, he considers that the phenomenon is on the decline, since she has lost her colonial monopoly. No doubt colonial exploitation has been (and still is, in its neo-colonialist form) an ideological as well as an economic basis for reformism. But it has become clear today that reformism is also nourished by structural transformations in capitalism that are connected with the development of the productive forces. In Lenin’s day this aspect was particularly well perceived by the Bernsteinian revisionists, who were anxious to find all possible motives, true or false, to justify their renouncement of revolution.

A problem of sociological viewpoint also enters into Lenin’s subjectivism in appreciating the degree to which the Western proletariat had reached revolutionary maturity. Whereas he sees with perfect clarity the dialectical mediations between the contradictions at the level of economic structures and those at the level of politico-social forces in the case of Russian society, in which he was deeply rooted and which he had analysed thoroughly in a long process of theory and practice, he sees these same mediations in a rather abstract and simplified way when what is involved is Western society, which he knows only from the outside, as an observer, despite his years of exile there. It is above all the cultural universe in which the Western proletariat is immersed that escapes him: for example, to take two aspects which profoundly affect its political behaviour, the Western proletariat’s deep attachment to national and democratic values. The nation and democracy were, historically, products of capitalism, but they were also conquests won by the working masses. The ‘betrayal’ of the principle of internationalism by the Social Democratic leaders expressed perfectly (while also stimulating) the attachment to the national principle that was a feature of the working people’s consciousness. And when the German Social Democrats invoked ‘defence’ of parliamentary democracy against Tsarist autocracy, or the French Socialists invoked ‘defence’ of the gains of the Great Revolution against Prussian militarism, they were echoing sentiments that were deeply rooted in the masses. The great trade-union tradition of the European proletariat — absent in Russia — is another element with which Lenin’s analysis does not sufficiently reckon, when he proclaims world-wide extension of the Russian Soviets as the form to be assumed by the mass movement.

Account must be taken, finally, of the special psychological inclination of Lenin and the other Bolshevik leaders that followed from their theoretical conception of the interdependence between the Russian revolution and the revolution in the West. It was necessary for the Russian revolution that the European revolution should not ‘miss its appointment’. This necessity could not but affect in a negative way the scientific rigour shown when analysing the revolutionary potential of the European proletariat.

It is this psychological inclination that explains, perhaps, why, when studying the revolutionary situation in Europe after November 1918, Lenin did not accord the importance it deserved to the change in the role being played by the question of peace. In Russia, this had been the key question that had rallied the majority of the people round the Bolsheviks: the proletarian revolution meant making peace. In Germany and the other European countries, once the Armistice had been signed, it was revolution that represented for the masses a return to war — in the form of civil war and foreign intervention. And the masses wanted peace, above all.

To sum up: the divorce, revealed by practice, between Lenin’s ideas about the proletariat of the industrialized capitalist countries and the actual behaviour of this proletariat shows up (as well as the psychological aspect that has been mentioned) the absence, in Marxist theory, of an answer to certain political and theoretical problems concerning the road to revolution in these types of society. And this is perfectly comprehensible if we keep in mind a fundamental circumstance, namely, that there was no precedent for revolutions of this kind.

If Lenin was able to work out the theory of the Russian revolution, with its original combination of bourgeois-democratic and socialist tasks, and make his rigorous analysis of the behaviour in it of classes and social groups, parties and political institutions, forms of struggle and so on, this was because the Russian revolution, as a ‘natural phenomenon’, to use Engels’ expression, had been a fact since 1905. It was this that provided the materials that enabled the theoretical work to be done. If there are no ‘materials’ of this order available, the entire works of Marx and Engels are inadequate for building the theory of the revolution in a given society.

When he elaborates his overall theory of the socialist revolution as a world revolution, Lenin suffers from this lack of ‘materials’ where advanced capitalism is concerned, and also, to a smaller extent, where the colonial liberation movement is concerned. (In the latter case, he reckons with the experience of the first revolutions of this kind, which began after 1905, but the geographical remoteness of which made it hard to grasp directly in their extreme originality.) In practice, Lenin adopted without critical revision the ideas of the left or centrist-orthodox theoreticians of the Second International as regards the ‘maturing’ of the revolution in the advanced countries. But this certificate of maturity was in contradiction with the reality of the reformist process — the process of ‘integration’, as we should say nowadays — that was going forward in those countries. The supposed ‘maturing’ was based on general formulas of Marxism and not on a concrete analysis of the real process. Hence the fact that the struggle against reformism was abstract in content, and proved ineffectual on the political and ideological plane. It started out from a metaphysical conception of the readiness of the proletariat for revolution, even if the actual conduct of the proletariat seemed to give this the lie. The reformist bureaucracy, trade-union and political, which dominated the labour movement was seen by the left as a foreign body in relation to the proletariat. When the first major economic crisis struck — and, a fortiori, in a crisis like the war — the split between them would take place and the revolutionary ‘essence’ of the proletariat would manifest itself in full strength. However, the war proved exactly the opposite: it revealed the strength and the depth of the reformist phenomenon. This depth was itself only an aspect, though a fundamental one, of a larger reality, namely, that the revolution had not yet ‘matured’ in advanced capitalist society. It was only knocking at the door. The ‘general crisis’ of capitalism was beginning, but this was to be much more complex than Lenin had foreseen. It was very hard to imagine that several decades would pass before the socialist revolution presented itself in the principal capitalist countries. Lenin was even less able to imagine — though a shade of doubt does appear in his last writings — that the ‘general crisis’ of capitalism would be accompanied by a ‘general crisis’ of Marxist thought. And yet the premises that made this second crisis possible, even if not inevitable, had already been given....


The overthrow of bourgeois power in a state covering a sixth of the earth’s surface certainly constituted a historic international victory of the revolutionary movement inspired by Marxism. But the world context in which this victory had been won, the ‘resistance’ put up by capitalism in the advanced countries, the notable strengthening of capitalism in some key areas (North America, Japan), the national framework within which the socialist revolution was still confined — in a backward country, to boot — called in question some essential aspects of the theoretical conception of the process of world revolution that had been worked out by Marx, Engels and Lenin. It was not easy, however, in the setting of 1921, when Lenin saw clearly that the revolutionary drive in Europe had been checked, to penetrate the profound significance of this new reality. On the one hand, the importance of the revolutionary victory won in Russia and the impression made by the presence of the first proletarian state in history were sufficiently dazzling to hide the contradictions between the new situation and the traditional theoretical schemas. On the other, it was easy, at first, to reconcile this new situation with the old schemas: all that was needed was to look upon what was happening as a momentary interruption in the expected process of the world revolution. The curtain would not be long in rising on the second act. This was the solution found for the problem by the leaders of the Bolshevik Party and of the Comintern. Trotsky formulates it very clearly in presenting the principal report (‘The World Economic Crisis and the New Tasks of the Comintern’) to the Third World Congress, on 23 June 1921:

‘Only now do we see and feel that we are not immediately close to our final aim, to the conquest of power on the world scale, to the world revolution. 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. Exactly how long, we do not know, but we know that development is proceeding in that direction, and that during this period we have become much stronger throughout the world.’[20]

The ‘theses on tactics’ voted by the Congress declare that ‘the world revolution ... will require a fairly long period of revolutionary struggle’, but consider that ‘what may be expected is not the waning of the star of the world revolution, not the ebb of its waves, but, on the contrary, the aggravation of social antagonism and social struggles, and the transition to open civil war’.[21]

The theses of this Congress acknowledge a fact of primary importance: ‘The variety in the degree of acuteness reached by contradictions in different countries, the variety in their social structure and in the obstacles to be surmounted, the high level of organization of the bourgeoisie in the highly developed capitalist countries of west Europe and North America, meant that the world war did not issue immediately in the victory of the world revolution.’[22]

But the Congress did not try to ascertain why in 1919, and even in 1920, immediate victory was thought to be possible despite the existence of reasons which ‘meant’ ruling out that possibility. The theses explain the behaviour of the proletariat by the attitude of the ‘powerful Social Democratic labour organizations and parties’, but at the time when the congress met these parties and trade unions had recovered their former strength and even increased it. How was this fact, together with the high degree of organization of capitalism, to be reconciled with the prospect, which was held out as probable in those theses, of an immediate sharpening of social struggles? These ambiguities — which reveal the presence of theoretical uncertainties — are to be seen in all the documents of the congress. The old schema of the world revolution’s progress is retained, with the new phenomena stuck on to it:

(1) The imperialist system is moving towards another world war, which will give rise to a new great revolutionary crisis. The principal contradictions that will provoke the war this time are the ones between the USA and Britain, on the one hand, and the USA and Japan, on the other.

(2) The initial revolutionary break-through will take place this time, as it did before, in that country where the concentration of contradictions, internal and external, creates the biggest explosive charge. Germany, defeated in the First World War, much weakened economically, oppressed by the Treaty of Versailles, and possessing a Communist Party that is the strongest section of the Comintern after the Russian party, is seen as a likely candidate to play the role that Russia played in 1917.

(3) After this break-through the revolution will spread to the other links in the capitalist system — the advanced countries and the colonies. This time, the revolutionary wave will be able to count from the start on the support of a proletarian state, of a military force ready to come to the aid of the international proletariat. Conserving and strengthening this citadel is therefore a matter of fundamental importance for the world revolution, and the congress says so. But the principal factor in the world revolution continues to be, for the Bolshevik leaders and for the Comintern, the proletariat of the advanced capitalist countries.

In order to ensure that the schema was both coherent and credible, two big unknowns had to be eliminated, the first of these being the behaviour to be expected from the European proletariat, given past experience. The Third Congress theses recognize, but only to reject it at once, the possibility that European capitalism may re-establish itself, with the working class agreeing to work under conditions worse than those that prevailed before the war. The reformist trade unions and parties, the theses (‘on the international situation and the tasks of the Comintern’) observe, are trying to urge the workers in this direction, ‘but the European proletariat is not ready to sacrifice itself. It demands an improvement in its lot, which is at present absolutely incompatible with the objective possibilities of capitalism.’[23] By coming up against this ‘absolute incompatibility’ the economic struggle of the working class would be transformed — so the congress forecast — into a revolutionary struggle, which would be provided with the appropriate political leadership by the sections of the Comintern. This prospect was based on two assumptions: the first, a new terminal situation of European capitalism, in which it would be incapable of satisfying economic demands that would imply a real improvement in the material situation of the working class as compared with pre-war; and, the second, connected with the first, that the reformist organizations would not take up the struggles for these economic improvements, thus losing their influence over the working class. Both of these assumptions were soon to be disproved by events.

The second unknown was no less important. The Third Congress recognized that, while European capitalism had come weakened out of the war, American capitalism, on the contrary, had been considerably strengthened, and ‘the centre of gravity of world economy has shifted from Europe to America’.[24] In order to triumph on the world scale, the revolution would therefore have to spread to the United States. The Congress theses ‘deal with’ this unknown by means of the following argument:

‘While in Europe the concentration of property has been based on general impoverishment, in the United States both this concentration and the greater acuteness of class antagonisms have reached an extreme degree on the basis of a feverish expansion of wealth. The sudden changes in the economic situation because of the general uncertainties of the world market give to the class struggle in America an extremely tense and revolutionary character. A period of capitalist expansion unprecedented in history is bound to be followed by an unusual outburst of revolutionary struggle.’[25]

As regards the national liberation movement in the colonies, the prospect seemed clear. Since the October revolution the importance of this ‘front’ of the world revolution had grown steadily, fully confirming Lenin’s forecasts on the subject. The documents and the practical activity of the Comintern pay genuine attention to it — but this ‘front’ is always subordinated to the ‘main front’, namely, the advanced capitalist countries.

The Fourth and Fifth Congresses of the Comintern (in 1922 and 1924) made no important change in the general schema of the progress of the world revolution as conceived by the Third Congress. Soon after the Fifth Congress, recognition was to be introduced that a phase of ‘relative stabilization’ of capitalism had begun — a phase which was expected to be short-lived, and to be followed by a fresh great revolutionary break-through.

The first questionings of the relevance of this now already classical schema of world revolution, and of the optimism to which it testified, came from its principal author himself. In Lenin’s last writings, and especially in his last article (February 1923), doubt and disquiet show through regarding the fate of the Russian revolution and of the world revolution. We hear for the first time a pessimistic note sounded in relation to the revolutionary possibilities in the advanced capitalist countries. Lenin looks for a way out in three main directions: the struggle of the oppressed peoples of Asia, exploitation of inter-imperialist contradictions and rapid industrialization of Soviet Russia. The prospect of the triumph of the world revolution has become blurred, in an uncertain view of the future. The propositions of this article[26] can be summed up thus:

(1) Lenin sees the whole world as embraced by the orbit of the world revolution and as divided into two camps: on one side the victorious and prosperous capitalist countries of the West and the East (Japan); on the other, the colonial and semi-colonial countries, Soviet Russia and the European countries defeated in the war. The main axis of development of the world revolution runs through the struggle between these two camps.

(2) The panorama offered by the camp of the oppressed is not at all a cheering one. The revolution has conquered in Russia, but the country lies in ruins, and petty production predominates. Germany can face up to her conquerors only with difficulty, for ‘all the capitalist powers of what is called the West are pecking at her and preventing her from rising. On the other hand, the entire East, with its hundreds of millions of exploited working people, reduced to the last degree of human suffering, has been forced into a position where its physical and material strength cannot possibly be compared with the physical, material and military strength of any of the much smaller West-European states.’

(3) As regards the victorious capitalist states, Lenin considers that they are in a position, thanks to their exploitation of the colonies and the defeated European countries, to grant concessions to the exploited classes such as may hold back the revolutionary movement.

(4) In face of this setting for the world revolution, Lenin becomes extremely prudent concerning its prospects: ‘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 that has been drawn into the struggle for emancipation with extraordinary rapidity ...’ On the horizon of the world’s history, Lenin sees approaching ‘military conflict between the counter-revolutionary imperialist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East, between the most civilized countries of the world and the Orientally backward countries which, however, comprise the majority ...’ In order that it may ‘ensure our existence until’ this occurs, however, `this majority must become civilized’. And, referring specifically to Russia, he goes on to say: ‘We, too, lack enough civilization to enable us to pass straight on to socialism, although we do have the political requi­sites for it.’ (‘Civilization’ here means, for Lenin, industrialization and cultural development of the Western type. This is why, in another part of his article, he says that the people of the East have finally entered upon development along ‘the general European capitalist lines’.)

If we compare this schema of Lenin’s with the previous ones, we clearly perceive a shift in the role and relationship of the world revo­lutionary forces. The Western proletariat, as a revolutionary force, has moved down, for a certain period, to the second place. And the op­pressed masses of what today we call the ‘third world’, together with the ‘oriental’ Soviet state, have moved up to the first place. At the same time, in order that this new force, which is rising ‘with extraordinary rapidity’, into the struggle for its own emancipation, may prove victor­ious, time is needed, sufficient time. The problem of ‘gaining time’ is in the forefront of Lenin’s preoccupations.

Drawing from this analysis the conclusions that relate to the Russian revolution, Lenin says that the central problem is that of ensuring its survival until the armed confrontation takes place between the imperi­alist West and the revolutionary and nationalist East. The line he recommends in order to succeed in this task is as follows: inside Russia, to ensure leadership of the peasant masses by the working class and to carry out a policy of far-reaching economy so as to concentrate resources for industrializing the country; in international policy, to profit from the contradictions between the imperialist states, so as to avoid a clash with them. In short, gain time while actively preparing for the day when, on the one hand, the conflicts between the imperialist states and the aggravation of their ‘internal contradictions’, and, on the other, the strengthening of the Soviet republic and of the national liberation movement of the oppressed peoples brings about a balance of forces on the international scale that is favourable to the world revolution.

It is useless to speculate on the theoretical and political ‘extensions’ that this beginning of a revision might have led to in Lenin’s activity if death had not taken him off prematurely. We find some of the ideas outlined here in the conceptions of Mao Tse-tung and, in general, in those strategies that see the masses of the ‘third world’ as the protagonist of the world revolution. Others served as compass for Stalin’s strategy, especially as regards the principle of keeping the Soviet State out of the conflicts between the imperialist states, and exploiting to this end the contradictions between them. Here we find, too, the idea of according priority to the economic and military strengthening of the Soviet state as a part of the development of world revolutionary forces — an idea that is not expressed with clarity by Lenin, but can easily be deduced from his last writings.

Some analysts of Leninism have concluded, somewhat precipitately, that these ideas of Lenin’s implied a radical revision of Marx’s conception of the socialist revolution. For Marx the specifically capitalist contradictions are the mainspring of the socialist revolution, and the optimum ‘maturing’ of this revolution occurs in advanced capitalism, whereas, for Lenin, the conditions for the socialist revolution are to be found, it is said, rather in ‘backwardness’. According to Alfred G. Meyer, Lenin substituted ‘the dialectics of backwardness’, as driving force of the revolution, for the Marxian dialectics based on a high degree of development of the productive forces.[27] This conclusion drawn by Meyer and others results from two confusions. When Lenin refers to the revolutions of the East he does not mean socialist revolutions, but bourgeois-democratic revolutions that will have to go a long way before they become transformed into socialist ones.[28] The second confusion is the one I have already remarked upon: that between revolution in the broad sense and revolution in the narrow sense. Before the October revolution and right down to the end of his life, Lenin always maintained that revolution in the narrow sense — and initially bourgeois-democratic in character — is easier in the underdeveloped countries, but that the transition to socialism will present grave difficulties in these countries. On the other hand, in his view, in the advanced capitalist countries the revolution in the narrow sense (the taking of power by the proletariat) is more difficult, whereas the building of socialism will be easier. At no stage did Lenin revise Marx’s essential thesis. In February 1922 he wrote: ‘We have always urged and reiterated the elementary truth of Marxism — that the joint efforts of the workers of several advanced countries are needed for the victory of socialism.’[29] What Lenin was beginning to revise, in fact, in the article summarized above, was his conception of the concrete course of development to be followed by the world revolution: in the first place by extending it in time, replacing the near-at-hand prospect by a very long-term one, and in the second by noting the need for a new ‘prelude’ to the decisive stage (which for Lenin is still the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries), namely, the bourgeois-democratic revolution in the oppressed countries of the East.

We may presume that, for a theoretical mind like Lenin’s, the doubts and misgivings that appear in his last writings would have led to a deeper study of the new phenomena of capitalism and imperialism, of the revolutionary awakening of the ‘backward’ countries, of the behaviour of the proletariat in the ‘advanced’ countries, and so on. We may think that such a study would have induced him to revise the Comintern’s strategy and tactics and also, perhaps, the very conception of its structures and working. It was not by accident, doubtless, that, at the Fourth Congress of the Comintern (November 1922), referring to the resolution on the structure, methods and activity of the Communist parties which had been adopted by the Third Congress, Lenin said: ‘The resolution is an excellent one, but it is almost entirely Russian, that is to say, everything in it is based on Russian conditions. . . I have the impression that we made a big mistake with this resolution, namely, that we blocked our own road to further success.’[30] It is no less significant that Lenin’s main recommendation to the Communists, both of the Soviet Union and of other countries, at this congress, was that they should study. ‘I think that after five years of the Russian revolution the most important thing for all of us, Russian and foreign comrades alike, is sit down and study. . . We must take advantage of every moment of respite from fighting, from war, to study, and to study from scratch’.[31]

This amounted to saying that there were some very important questions still to be cleared up. This was why Lenin also advised that no decision be adopted on the Comintern draft programme, but that it be studied more carefully, among other reasons because ‘we have given scarcely any thought to possible retreat, and to preparations for it’.


We have seen that the Leninist theory of the course of the world revo­lution made necessary a ‘world party’, strongly centralized on a global scale, with a semi-military discipline and rigorous ideological unity. As we have also seen, the urgency of creating this party was due to Lenin’s view that the objective conditions had arrived for the world revolution to be victorious (‘moribund’ capitalism, and a very high revolutionary level of the Western proletariat). All that was lacking was a party capable of putting itself at the head of the irresistible revolutionary process. We have seen, too, that this conception of Lenin’s was refuted, both in its general theoretical aspect and in its conjunctural aspect, by the actual march of history. The crisis of theory thus opened was not recognized as such, but remained, in fact, subjacent all through the internal struggle that went on in the Bolshevik Party leadership and in the Comintern. Stalin ‘resolved’ the problem by means of an empirical revision of the theory of world revolution, propounded by Marx and Lenin: as a result of this revision, the victory of the revolution in the industrialized part of the world ceased to be a necessary condition for building socialist society, which could now be fully constructed within the national limits of the USSR. Nevertheless, Stalin’s revision still retained the con­ception of a ‘moribund’ capitalism which had reached the end of its historical evolution and was incapable of allowing for any substantial new development of the productive forces. The coming victory of the world revolution was inexorably determined in advance by the junction of these two processes: ‘building socialism’ in the USSR (with, conse­quently, ascent of the productive forces to a higher level, without pre­cedent under capitalism), and ‘decay’ of capitalism, becoming ever more acute. The key factor became the ‘building of socialism in the USSR’, whereas the Western proletariat, and along with it the peoples of the colonies and semi-colonies, saw themselves relegated to the role of auxiliary factors. In this way the Comintern’s total subordination to Soviet policy was given theoretical justification. This was the essence of Stalin’s theory of the world revolution, which was taken over by the Comintern. A victim of its own logic, the theory was itself set aside when the security of the USSR, as seen by Stalin, required that this be done. And, to conclude, one day it became opportune, by virtue of this same requirement, to put an end to the Comintern, the ‘world party’ conceived by Lenin...

....The Bolsheviks, said Rosa Luxemburg in her essay on the Russian revolution, ‘by their determined revolutionary stand, their exemplary strength in action, and their unbreakable loyalty to international social­ism … have contributed whatever could possibly be contributed under such devilishly hard conditions’. But she added, prophetically: ‘The danger begins only when they make a virtue of necessity and want to freeze into a complete theoretical system all the tactics forced upon them by these fatal circumstances, and want to recommend them to the international proletariat as a model of socialist tactics.’[32] The danger did indeed begin there. For, on the one hand, the Russian revolutionary theoreticians yielded to the temptation to make a virtue of necessity, and, on the other, the admiration and enthusiasm with which the Russian revolution filled the revolutionaries of all countries predisposed them to accept its message uncritically. This development was favoured by the fact that the ‘theoretical forces’ formed in the Second Inter­national had (with rare exceptions such as Rosa Luxemburg, Mehring and some others of less importance) all deserted the camp of revolution. Their critique of the Russian revolution, from reformist or liberal posi­tions, contributed to reinforcing still further, for the revolutionaries of the capitalist world, the authority of the Bolshevik conceptions.

At the moment when critical thinking was most necessary, the October revolution introduced theoretical complacency. Everything seemed to have been settled, in principle — the paths of the revolution, the tactics to be used, the model for the party — when in reality everything had become more problematical than at any previous moment in the history of the labour movement. This was so in the West, where the revolution had been beaten and the bulk of the proletariat turned a deaf ear to revolutionary Marxism, and in the East, where the revolution was awakening in a setting that Marxism had hardly yet explored. It was so even in Russia, where the proletarian revolution was isolated, encircled internationally by the capitalist world and bogged down internally in the peasant and petty-bourgeois marsh. Unlike Marx, however, the heralds of the October revolution proclaimed to the revolutionaries of all coun­tries: ‘Behold the truth, and bow down before it!’ This doctrinaire atti­tude could not but encourage sectarianism and authoritarianism, favouring the dogmatization of Marxism in its Bolshevik version and leading to underestimation of the national originality of other countries — those of advanced capitalism as well as those oppressed by imperi­alism.

Lenin himself, though he often emphasized the need to avoid copying Russian experience in a mechanical way, wrote in ‘Left-Wing’ Commu­nism, An Infantile Disorder (and he repeated this in other places): ‘Not merely several but all the primary features of our revolution, and many of its secondary features, are of international significance.’ And even though he stressed that, when the revolution had triumphed in an advanced country, Russia would then become a backward country, from the socialist standpoint, he added: ‘At the present moment in history, however, it is the Russian model that reveals to all countries something — and something highly significant — of their near and inevitable future.’ In the conclusion to this famous lesson in tactics, Lenin reiterated the need to take into account ‘the concrete features which this struggle assumes and must inevitably assume in each country, in conformity with the specific character of its economics, politics, culture and national composition (Ireland, etc.), its colonies, religious divisions, and so on and so forth’.[33] It was a matter, however, of taking these ‘concrete features’ into account in order to apply a theoretical and political set of ideas regarded as having already been worked out and tested by historical experience, so far as its essential components and ‘principles’ were concerned. To those inherited from Marx some new elements were added: soviets constitute the universal form of the dictatorship of the proletariat; the party of the Bolshevik type is the universal model of the Marxist revolutionary party; etc. At no stage was it suggested that the diversity of national realities and the new world reality might require a new Marxist analysis in depth capable of bringing forward new revo­lutionary theories. There seemed to be no notion at all that events, instead of fully confirming the theory of the revolution inherited from Marx and Engels, enriched by Lenin’s contributions, had called in question some essential aspects of this theory.

The mental attitude of the Bolsheviks, which was transmitted through the Comintern to the non-Russian Communists, could be summed up as follows: the October revolution had made it possible to complete the Marxist theory of the revolution with regard to questions on which, owing to their lack of concrete experience, the two great masters had not been able to get far enough. For example: the contradictions of imperi­alism, the form of the dictatorship of the proletariat, problems of strat­egy and tactics, the type of party, etc. What still remained problematical thenceforth was not the theory of the revolution as such, but only its particular interpretation in relation to the specific conditions prevailing in each country. On a more general theoretical plane, the October vic­tory was seen as irrefutable proof of the absolutely scientific character of Marxism. ‘It is therefore clear,’ wrote Bukharin in his Historical Materialism, ‘That Marxists have a perfect right to regard proletarian science as true and to demand that it be generally recognized.”[34]

The depository of this ‘true science’ in the world outside the Soviet Union was the Comintern. But the Comintern concentrated its attention — since the basic questions of the theory of the revolution were seen as having been settled — on strategic, tactical and organizational forms of action. Philosophical, economic, historical and sociological inves­tigations were of only secondary interest. Political schemes became in­creasingly detached from the social sciences and, in general, from the cultural milieu in which they were to be applied. In the Comintern’s discussions on the colonial problem, for example, the categories remained, baldly: ‘proletariat’, ‘peasantry’, ‘national bourgeoisie’, etc., without ever, or only rarely, taking into account the cultural universe characteristic of those countries, so radically different from that of the West.

The contradiction between theoretical positions and actual develop­ment began to find symptomatic reflection in the passionate discussions on tactical problems that dominated the first congresses of the Comintern. No one, however, formulated clearly the idea that there was a crisis of theory. After Lenin’s death, as though in an attempt to over­come all doubts and misgiving, the tendency to ‘theoretical com­placency’ and the dogmatization of Marxism rapidly intensified. One must not hesitate to defend the Marxist ‘dogma’, wrote Bolshevik, the theoretical journal of the Soviet party: ‘Only by fulfilling this task with­out deviation will it be possible to keep unspotted the flag of the theory of the proletarian revolution, the flag of the Marxist “dogma”. It is quite pointless to be afraid of this word. The fight against “dogmatic” Marxism has always been an activity of reformists far remote from Marxism, such as Bernstein. All that is best in the working-class move­ment has always fought for the “dogma” of Marxism.’ [35] The dogma (without quotation-marks) was, needless to say, Leninism. History repeated itself. After Lenin’s death the young Third International was making the same mistake as that made by the Second after the death of Marx and Engels, when it ‘canonized’ their doctrine...

...This process of dogmatization and continual shrinking of the theoretical foundations of the Comintern was clearly reflected in the Commu­nist parties. Those which, when they were formed, lacked any national heritage of theory (such as, for example, the Spanish one) vegetated in a routine-ridden activism; those which possessed such a heritage (like the German and Italian ones) were unable to cultivate it: the theoretical work of Rosa Luxemburg was doomed to ostracism, as was, later, that of Gramsci. In his report on the Comintern delivered to the Fifteenth Congress of the CPSU (December 1927), Bukharin alluded to the theoretical weakness of the Communist parties in general, and of their leading circles in particular, as constituting one of the Comintern’s main shortcomings. He emphasized how few intellectuals there were in these leading groups, noting that ‘the series of crises which we witnessed. in our Communist parties, since the time when the revolutionary wave subsided, affected first of all the intellectual upper stratum’. With a careful choice of words, he mentioned that this misfortune had not left the Soviet party untouched. The leaders of the USSR, he observed ‘are overburdened with general work and cannot give enough attention to the theoretical work’. And this weakening in theoretical work through the Comintern was taking place at a time when ‘the situation now is much more complicated and much greater demands are made on the executive than before’, as regards theoretical leadership.

Bukharin was one of the few leaders of the Comintern who, during the 1920s, began to think about fundamental problems connected with the structure of capitalism, the changes taking place in the working class, the colonial question and so on. […] In the same report Bukharin commented that the Comintern had only a very general notion of the colonial problem. The Chinese revolution, he said, had made it possible to perceive this weakness: ‘The entire complication of the social class entanglement, the great difficulty of the tasks con­nected with the conduct of such a tremendous colonial revolution, only faced us quite recently in grim reality.’[36] In each concrete case, Bukharin emphasized, it was necessary to analyse the class structures. The Comintern’s theses on the colonial question provided it with only a very general basis.

All these incitements to tackle the new problematic presented by world development were to be swept aside during the struggle against ‘the right-wing deviation as the main enemy’. Even so, neither the prestige-backing that the October revolution had brought to the dog­matization of Leninism as Marxism’s last word, nor the repressive and administrative mechanism of the Comintern, is sufficient to account for the progressive paralysis that overcame revolutionary Marxist thinking in the capitalist world between the wars. During this same period, within the framework of the Comintern, the Chinese revolutionary intel­ligentsia did begin to break out of the schemas manufactured by the Comintern centre in Moscow and really to follow the Bolshevik example. They took the first step towards the elaboration of a revo­lutionary theory of the Chinese revolution, just as the Bolshevik intellec­tuals had done when they created an original theory of the Russian revolution.[37] But the Chinese Communists not only had the Comintern, they also had a revolution under way, just as the Bolsheviks had not only had Marx and the Second International but also the revolution taking place in Russia. It is therefore legitimate to wonder if it was not a deeper-lying reality — the objective immaturity of the socialist revolution in the countries of advanced capitalism — that conditioned the paralysis of theoretical thinking among the revolutionary Marxists of the West, even if the factors that have been mentioned did contribute strongly to aggravating it, or can account for it as, specifically, a state of ‘paralysis’.

It is not my intention, of course, to claim that the productive forces of advanced capitalism did not already constitute, in the period of which I write, an adequate material basis for the socialist transformation of society. I refer to the immaturity of the revolution, which is a very different matter, despite the frequent confusion made between these two problems. If we start from Marx’s theoretical theses on the objective maturing of the socialist revolution, taking the concept of revolution in its broad sense and not in the narrow sense of the capture of power by the working class (or by a party claiming to represent it), then it is not enough for this maturity to have arrived that productive forces should exist that can sustain a new social order. It must also be the case that capitalism is incapable of developing new productive forces. If, at cer­tain moments of their lives, Marx and Engels foresaw the victory of the socialist revolution in Europe, this was because they thought that capi­talism had reached this terminal situation. We see that conviction ex­pressed already in the Manifesto. Lenin made a similar appreciation regarding capitalism as transformed into the imperialist system. The Comintern’s leaders took this over as it stood, and built upon it all their strategic and tactical plans. As we have seen, the thesis of ‘socialism in one country’ is justified as a new theory of the world revolution in so far as it presupposes, besides the prospect of building socialism in the USSR, the reality of the stagnation and decay of capitalism, now incapable, as Trotsky was to say — in complete agreement on this point with his implacable adversary — of any new development of the productive forces. However, the two world wars and the world economic crisis of 1929 proved to be not the expression of capitalism’s arrival at the terminal situation mentioned, but essential means for transforming it structurally, and giving it a new capacity to expand the productive forces. Monstrous means, to be sure, but the monstrous is a moral cate­gory, not an economic one. The two world wars, in particular, furnished a most striking illustration of the infernal logic of capitalism, of that logic in which, as Marx put it, ‘progress’ resembles the pagan idol who will not drink the nectar otherwise than from the skulls of his victims. If we were to approach the problem exclusively from the ‘moral’ stand­point, it would be hard to understand how mankind, faced with such obvious monstrosities, has not yet put an end to capitalism. This, however, would be to forget that a system that is capable of developing the productive forces also ‘develops’ its own ‘moral’ justifications (in the case of capitalism — patriotism, nationalism, racism, individualism and many other ‘isms’). The reformist ideology, secreted organically by the system’s capacity to develop the productive forces, holds a place of honour among capitalism’s moral as well as political justifications. Would Fascism have been able to exert such attraction upon millions of petty-bourgeois, peasants and workers between the two world wars, con­stituting one of the most monstrous forms of ideological justification of capitalism, if there had not been, behind the demagogy of Mussolini or Hitler, the capacity of German and Italian monopoly capitalism to re­structure the system for a new development of the productive forces?

No terminal situation seems to have yet to have occurred for capital­ism, in the sense of incapacity to develop the productive forces. And the theoretical problem of whether such a situation is now foreseeable, and what processes might lead to it, remains open. But the objective imma­turity of the revolution (in the broad sense) under the advanced capital­ism of today does not in the least signify that between the two world wars, and at the end of the second of these, no situations were presented that were propitious for ‘a bold stroke’ by the revolutionary party (as Lenin sometimes spoke of the October assault) that could have put an end to the monstrous logic of capitalist development in one or another of the industrial countries.

Nevertheless, there must be an underlying connection between this objective immaturity and the theoretical and political immaturity hith­erto demonstrated by the revolutionary vanguards formed under ad­vanced capitalism, when it is a matter of profiting by situations propitious to revolution (in the narrow sense).

The first ‘immaturity’ represents a considerable barrier — operating through a very complex series of justifications, such as those already mentioned and many others as well — across the road by which current social consciousness can arrive at a root-and-branch condemnation of the system. And theoretical consciousness, which can arise only in the intel­lectual strata, suffers from the absence of this pressing stimulant. When society is really in a situation of general crisis (I include among the components of such a situation an incapacity of the socio-economic mechanism to continue developing the productive forces without chang­ing its own nature), this is not only reflected, in a more or less confused way, in ordinary social consciousness: the ‘theory-producing’ stratum is affected by it, too, in its own social existence as well as in the values and conceptions that have until then made up its cultural universe. It is not only the experience of society as a whole but its own most immediate experience that impels this stratum to find a revolutionary theory appro­priate to the prevailing crisis. This is what happened in the societies of Russia and China, as it had happened already in the society of Ger­many in the middle of the nineteenth century, without our needing to go any farther back in history. (Let us not forget that Marx and Engels, as revolutionary theoreticians, were above all products of the general crisis of German society in the middle of the nineteenth century and of the theoretical consciousness of this crisis. Analysis should be undertaken to determine how far Marx’s ‘German standpoint’ affected the scientific analyses in Capital, leading him to draw excessively hasty conclusions about the maturity of the revolution in the advanced capitalist countries of the nineteenth century, just as Lenin’s ‘Russian standpoint’ led him to draw similar conclusions regarding the capitalism of the first years of the twentieth century.) However, as we know, the terminal situations of these societies did not result from the contradictions inherent in capital­ist structures, but from the contradictions between the latter and pre-capitalist structures. It was on this basis that the objective premise of the revolution (in the broad sense) theorized by Marx became a reality; namely, the incapacity of the existing socio-economic system to cope with new productive forces.

For the problem that concerns us here we have no need to dwell on the well-known reasons why the Russian and Chinese revolutions did not remain within the ‘bourgeois framework’ but became transformed into proletarian revolutions. What is of greatest interest here is to bring out the fact that elaboration of the theory of revolution in the advanced capitalist countries has up to now lacked the powerful ‘stimulant’ that was enjoyed by both the Russian and Chinese revolutions. What has been absent is that ‘general crisis’ which official Marxism sees as having been present since the First World War, and which has been said to have now entered into its ‘third stage’ — but which has not yet expressed itself in what should have been its main feature, namely, incapacity of the capitalist mechanism to develop the productive forces. Such develop­ment is a fact, and it is going forward at a rate never previously seen.

But recognition that this handicap exists for the theory of the revo­lution in the advanced capitalist countries does not mean acceptance that no such theory is possible. This may be the necessary first step in a theoretical effort to open new prospects for revolutionary transformation of the societies of advanced capitalism, on the basis of a more rigorous knowledge of these societies. In any case, the first condition for arriving at such a theory is that all the schemas and ‘principles’ that social prac­tice has shown to be erroneous shall be reconsidered, along with the methods and institutional structures that have contributed to preventing the discovery of error. The Comintern’s theoretical paralysis may be explicable ‘in the final instance’ by the objective immaturity of the revo­lution in advanced capitalist society, but, even so, we must concern ourselves above all with those other ‘instances’ that contributed to accen­tuating and aggravating the effects of the ‘final’ one.


The unresolved “crisis of theory” manifested in the Comintern of Lenin’s time was magnified exponentially in the Stalinized Comintern in which “theoretical” contortions served to subordinate the policy and practice of the International and its member parties to the strategy of the Kremlin bureaucracy. Claudín’s volumes document this process in the years leading up to the dissolution of the Comintern in 1943 – Stalin’s gift to his wartime allies in the imperialist democracies – and subsequently in the successor Cominform established by Stalin to ensure political control over the postwar satellite regimes in the east European buffer states, and to excommunicate socialist Yugoslavia when it defied Moscow’s diktat. The Communist Movement From Comintern to Cominform, initially published in Spanish in 1970, remains an outstanding resource for study of the complex history of the dominant ostensibly Marxist current in the “short Twentieth Century” ending with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991.

The complete two volumes can be accessed on-line: Part 1, and Part 2,


[1] Lenin, ‘The Revolutionary Democratic Dictatorship of the Proletariat and the Peasantry’, Collected Works (CW), vol. 8, p. 304.

[2] Lenin, ‘The Stages, the Trend and the Prospects of the Revolution’, CW, Vol. 10, p. 92.

[3] Lenin, ‘Paul Singer’ (1911), in CW, Vol. 17, p. 95.

[4] Lenin, ‘Meeting of the International Socialist Bureau’ (1908), in CW, Vol. 15, p. 237.

[5] Lenin, ‘The Successes of the American Workers’ (1912), in CW, Vol. 18, p. 335.

[6] Lenin, ‘The Awakening of Asia’ (1913), in CW, Vol. 19, pp. 85-6.

[7] Lenin, ‘Democracy and Narodism in China’ (1912), in CW, Vol. 18, pp. 163-69.

[8] In a statement sent to leading Party organizations on October 11 (24 Julian calendar), and soon after published in an opposition paper Novaia zhizn, Bolshevik leaders Kamenev and Zinoviev opposed the Central Committee’s plans for a Soviet insurrection, arguing that the Party lacked sufficient support both in Russia and internationally and proposing instead that it await the promised Constituent Assembly election, in which they thought the Party’s chances were excellent. The Constituent Assembly, they said, “can only rely on the Soviets in its revolutionary work. The Constituent Assembly plus the Soviets – here is that mixed type of state institution we are going towards. Based on this, our Party’s policy gets a tremendous chance of a real victory…. In the Constituent Assembly, we will be so strong as an opposition party that, with universal suffrage in the country, our opponents will be forced to yield to us at every step, or we will form a ruling bloc with the Left SRs [Socialist Revolutionaries], the non-party peasants and others which will basically have to promote our programme.” The Bolsheviks and the October Revolution: Central Committee Minutes of the Russian Social-Democratic Labour Party (bolsheviks), August 1917-February 1918 (Pluto Press, 1974), pp. 89-95. (RF)

[9] Lenin, ‘The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution’, CW Vol. 24, p. 67.

[10] Lenin, ‘Lessons of the Crisis’, Vol. 24, p. 215.

[11] Lenin, “Imperialism’, CW Vol. 22, pp. 187, 302.

[12] Lenin, ‘Letter to Sverdlov’, 1 October 1918, in CW Vol. 35, pp. 364-5. All Lenin’s articles and speeches during the last months of 1918 and throughout 1919 reflect his profound conviction that the world revolution had begun.

[13] ‘Lenin, ‘The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 113. (This is not Lenin’s well-known book, but a shorter article, bearing the same title, which gives the essence of the longer work.)

[14] Marx and Engels, Werke, Vol. 27, Dietz, Berlin, 1965, p. 190.

[15] Lenin, ‘Concluding Speech at Closing Session’, CW Vol. 28, pp. 476-7 and ‘Founding of the Communist International’, in ibid., p. 485.

[16] Lenin, ‘Theses and Report on Bourgeois Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 470.

[17] Lenin, ‘Letter to the Workers of Europe and America’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 435.

[18] Lenin, ‘Meeting of Moscow Party Activists, 27 November 1918’, in CW Vol. 28, p. 216.

[19] Stuart R. Schram and Hélène Carrère d’Encausse, Marxism and Asia, Allen Lane The Penguin Press, London, 1969, p. 22.

[20] Quoted by Branko Lazitch, Lénine et la Ille Internationale, La Baconnière, Neuchatel, 1951, p. 176. (This passage, which will be found in the Russian verbatim report of the Congress — Tretiy vsemir’ny kongress Kommunisticheskogo Internatsionala, stenografichesky otchet, Petrograd, 1922, pp. 45-6 — is omitted in the text of Trotsky's speech given in The First Five Years of the Communist International, I, New Park Publications, London, 1973.)

[21] Decisions of the Third Congress of the Communist International, CPGB, London, p. 4.

[22] Jane Degras, ed., The Communist International (1919-1943): Documents, OUP, London, 1956-65, I, pp. 242-3 (my italics).

[23] ibid., p. 237 (my italics).

[24] The First Five Years of the Communist International, I, op. cit., p. 292.

[25] Degras, op. cit., I, pp. 233-4.

[26] Lenin, ‘Better Fewer, but Better’, in CW Vol. 33, pp. 499-501.

[27] Alfred G. Meyer, Leninism, Praeger Paperback, New York, 1962, Chapter 12.

[28] At the Second Congress of the Comintern, in 1920, Indian delegate M.N. Roy objected to the characterization of liberation movements as “bourgeois-democratic” in Lenin’s draft theses on the national and colonial questions. Roy argued that support should be granted only to genuinely revolutionary movements of the masses. ‘Responding to Roy’s suggestions, Lenin’s report on the national and colonial questions specified that the liberation movements to be supported in backward countries should be termed not “bourgeois-democratic” but “national-revolutionary” […]. This distinction has proved useful to communists ever since. Although national-revolutionary movements embrace several classes and are not communist, the participation of communists in the struggles led by these movements has laid a basis for building stronger communist organizations among the workers and peasants.’ John Riddell, The Communist International in Lenin’s Time: Proceedings and Documents of the Second Congress, 1920, I, pp. 51-52. – R.F.

[29] Lenin, CW Vol. 33, p. 206.

[30] Lenin, ‘Five Years of the Russian Revolution and the Prospects of the World Revolution’, in CW Vol. 33, p. 430.

[31] ibid., pp. 430-31 (my italics).

[32] In Rosa Luxemburg: Selected Political Writings, ed. Robert Looker, Jonathan Cape, London, 1972, p. 250.

[33] Lenin, CW Vol. 31, pp. 21-2, 91.

[34] Bukharin, Historical Materialism, English edn, Allen and Unwin, London, 1926, p. xii.

[35] Bolshevik (Moscow), no. 10, 5 September 1924, p. 53. This journal began to appear after Lenin’s death, in the context of the struggle with the Trotskyist opposition.

[36] Inprecorr, English edn, No. 73 of 1927, pp. 1672-5.

[37] It was in March 1926 that Mao's study of the classes in Chinese society appeared, and in March 1927 his report on the investigation he had himself carried out into the peasant movement in the province of Hunan. So far as I know, politico-sociological inquiries like these — comparable to the ones made by Lenin in relation to Russian society at the end of the nineteenth century and at the beginning of the twentieth — were never undertaken in any of the Western Communist parties during the period of the Comintern.