First published in 1995 in France: Section One, “The Historical Balance Sheet” includes chapters on: communist movements throughout history; Marx and Engels and communism; “Real” vs. “Formal” domination of capital and the importance of this distinction for understanding the failure of the old workers movements (capitalism was not “obsolete” prior to 1945). Section Two, “Perspectives”, contains an extensive discussion of: the economic roots of capitalism’s current crisis (the “final stage of its cycle”); the communist revolution; and socialism.
The Great Illusion:
II. The European Revolution
The Post-War “Revolutionary Wave”: Myth and Reality
The years immediately following the First World War are said to have been the arena for a “great international revolutionary wave”. If we are to believe some commentators, it was the most serious proletarian assault that capitalism ever faced, and capitalism was nearly destroyed. But what happened, exactly? It is a fact that a number of more or less revolutionary events took place after the signing of the armistice in Germany and Hungary. Councils appeared in these countries, following the Russian model. In Budapest, in March 1919, the Republic of workers councils was proclaimed, in which social democrats and communists collaborated. In Munich, in April 1919, a red Commune arose in Bavaria, formed of a heterogeneous mixture of elements ranging from anarchists to every variety of social democrat, as well as communists of the Spartacist League.
The communist party (Spartacist League) was founded in Berlin at the end of 1918, with Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In January 1919, in the same city, the revolutionaries occupied several neighborhoods and public buildings, which led to a response by the authorities, that is, the “majority” social democrats, with the assistance of the “freikorps”, which crushed the movement: occupied buildings were rather easily cleared out, many of the occupiers were summarily shot, and white terror reigned. Shortly afterwards the two leaders of Spartacism, Liebknecht and Luxemburg, were arrested and murdered by the soldiers who served as the armed wing of the social democrats. This type of operation to restore order was repeated in various cities in Germany. In March 1919, another purge in Berlin: in order to break the general strike, the “freikorps”, with armored cars and flame-throwers, incurred between two and three thousand civilian casualties, hundreds of whom were shot after being captured. The same thing happened in Munich a short time later, where the “freikorps”, among whom were to be found the future Nazis Heinrich Himmler and Rudolf Hess, liquidated the red Commune of Bavaria in May 1919. In Hungary, the Council Republic dissolved and ceased to exist on August 1, 1919. As of that moment, the greater part of the “wave” had passed. In 1919, Italy certainly witnessed a very strong wave of social agitation that would culminate in September 1920 with factory occupations all over northern Italy, but never really developed into an insurrection. Elsewhere, no revolutionary situation would arise; the “wave” never reached France, it did not batter the coasts of England, not to speak of the United States.... It is therefore necessary to place everything that happened in its proper perspective. One can easily confirm that there was a certain revolutionary efflorescence, limited, however, to the former central European empires, that is, wherever the old monarchies existed, such as Germany and Austria (one may also include Russia) that collapsed as a result of the war. Under the conditions brought about by this collapse, revolutionary disturbances took place, which did not happen in the countries that had well-established bourgeois democracies, such as France and England, where nothing happened. For Germany and Austria, the task was to create comparable bourgeois democracies or republics. Thus, the social democrat Scheidemann, after the abdication of Wilhelm II, rushed to proclaim the German Republic on November 9, 1918 from his balcony before the crowd of workers, soldiers and petit bourgeois assembled in the street below. From that moment on, the “revolution” was over; there was no other revolution to carry out, and all those who thought otherwise were nothing but “provocateurs” and “irresponsible”. As of October 21, 1918, Vorwärts (the official organ of the social democrats) set the orientation: “The Russian revolution has discarded democracy and established in its place the dictatorship of the workers and soldiers councils. The social democratic party unequivocally rejects the Bolshevik theory and methods for Germany and pronounces in favor of democracy”,1 that is, clearly, in favor of bourgeois democracy. With such an orientation, this party—which thereby revealed its prevalent counterrevolutionary and anti-socialist spirit—sought to issue a warning to all those who dreamed of seeing Germany repeat what happened in Russia: the overthrow of the Romanov monarchy leading to the seizure of power by the Bolshevik “maximalists”. Attempts of this kind would of course be made, but they would rapidly be nipped in the bud. The situation in Germany was different: while it is true that the proletariat there constituted an imposing social force, the revolutionaries were unable to influence more than a small minority in its ranks (as was demonstrated by the elections to the councils), while the majority lined up behind the social democrats; under these conditions, the revolution that took place in Russia in October 1917 could not be reproduced in Germany.
The German revolution, which the Bolsheviks looked forward to like the Messiah, and which would have changed everything in Europe had it succeeded, was therefore another illusion and so was the European revolution as well, not to speak of the Third International which, from the start, presented itself as its great organizer.
A Desire for Reform rather than Revolution
The German revolution immediately clashed with forces that were much more powerful than it was, ranging from the left social democrats to the extreme right (sponsored by the aristocratic camp which, even after the fall of Wilhelm II, was still powerful, especially in the army), as well as the masses of the bourgeois and petit bourgeois who leaned to one or another of these two extremes. Obviously, the defection of the great majority of the proletariat, linked to social democracy, was decisive. Rosa Luxemburg showed that she was aware of this problem when, during the founding congress of the communist party, she emphasized that “the Spartacist League will never take over governmental power except in response to the clear, unambiguous will of the great majority of the proletarian masses of all of Germany....”2 She said this to warn those revolutionaries who did not have the masses of proletarians behind them that embarking on an insurrectional adventure, which some were advocating, would be suicidal under the circumstances. The issue was also underscored at the Congress of Workers and Soldiers Councils (where, out of 489 delegates, only 10 were from the Spartacist tendency, the lion’s share going to the “majority” social democrats, with 288 delegates), which refused to establish any kind of workers power and proclaimed instead for a bourgeois republic and the convening of a constituent assembly, which amounted to voting for its own downfall!
“The last ape of the crypto-capitalist governmental clique”; this is what this congress represents, Rosa Luxemburg exclaimed. After the elections for the Constituent Assembly, which took place on January 19 and which delivered eleven and a half million votes to the social democratic party, everything became clear: even though this party had only a few days earlier led the bloody repression during the course of which Luxemburg and Liebknecht, among other revolutionaries, lost their lives, this by no means prevented millions of workers from voting for its candidates! This massive vote in fact signified a vote against the revolutionaries and in favor of their executioners! It was therefore clear that the majority of the proletarian masses did not want revolution. In their eyes, the revolutionaries were nothing but promoters of disturbances, “schismatics”; for them, “socialism” meant reforms and “democracy”—of the bourgeois variety; and peace—not civil war!
The proletarian fractions that wanted to fight against capitalism were in the minority. Having risen in reaction against the war that had profoundly affected them, galvanized by the example of the Russian revolution that then took on the qualities of a motivational myth, but lacking much political experience, demonstrating a “somewhat puerile extremism”, as Rosa Luxemburg said, ready to plunge head-first into risky actions, they sallied forth to the massacre.
A desire for reform rather than revolution, to summarize the situation, is what characterized the state of mind of the majority of the proletariat. For the latter, after the war ended, what mattered most—and this was true also for the proletariat in the other European countries—was to win satisfaction of their pressing demands, by means of strikes, with violence if necessary, even by occupying factories (as would be done in Italy). But as for embarking upon a revolutionary action for the purpose of seizing power and doing away with capitalism, this is not what they had in mind. In fact, in Berlin, during the January days, as Broué writes, “overall, despite the hundreds of thousands of strikers, there are fewer than ten thousand men determined to fight (. . .). The masses of the workers are prepared to strike and even to go to a demonstration, but not to carry out the armed struggle”.3 This exemplifies all the pre-war reformism that we discussed above. After four years of war, during which the masses of workers had endured great privation (especially in Germany as a result of the economic blockade, while demobilization led to an increase in unemployment), this situation only gave rise to confused actions and quickly suppressed movements of minorities. But the workers’ consciousness is not socialist; it is reformist. Constantly subjected to a barrage of propaganda that proclaimed that their fate could gradually improve within capitalism, at the same time that their social democratic leaders were saying that this is “socialism”, no other option remained than “adventurism”. This is yet more evidence of the failure of the subjective factor, incapable, as we have already observed, of intervening to cut short the historical career of capitalism. Concerning this ideological immaturity of the masses, Anton Pannekoek is one of those who reckoned more accurately; he pointed out that “the proletarian masses were still completely governed by a bourgeois mentality”,4 which explains why it was that in Germany, after the downfall in November 1918 of the old regime, the masses, via the workers councils, did nothing but transfer their power to the constituent assembly, thus making the councils vehicles of the transition from the old imperial regime to the bourgeois republic of Weimar. Pannekoek notes that, in the West, the proletarians are stuffed full of petit bourgeois prejudices; after having been impregnated for years with the individualist values of bourgeois culture, they have passed beneath the yoke at the Caudine Forks of its “spiritual power”; this is why the communist spirit is, so to speak, absent from them. As we saw above, this ideological integration of the masses of the workers by way of school, army, press, and ballot box, constituted an impassible obstacle for the revolution.
Under these conditions, what solution did the revolutionaries focus on in order to permit the workers movement to escape from its dead end in the West, the only place where communism could really be established, but where the adequate class-consciousness was lacking?
“The failure of the German proletariat”, exclaimed Rosa Luxemburg in her 1918 pamphlet, The Russian Revolution. And for her, these shortcomings had deep roots: “The present situation is a closing of its accounts, a summing-up of the items of half a century’s work.”5 She was referring to the failure of the entire effort, carried out before the war, of organization, education and consciousness-raising, which was inoperative at that fateful hour in August 1914 when “the jewel of the organization of the class conscious proletariat”, the social democratic party, collapsed into the pit of the war.
Having made this observation, Rosa Luxemburg only saw one solution: the spontaneous action of the masses. “We have, happily, advanced since the days when it was proposed to ‘educate’ the proletariat socialistically.... [which] meant to deliver lectures to them, to circulate leaflets and pamphlets among them.... The workers, today, will learn in the school of action”.6 For his part, Pannekoek pointed to the same solution: what he called the “spiritual immaturity” of the masses “can be resolved only through the process of revolutionary development, by revolts and seizures of power, and with many reverses”.7 Through action, mass strikes, and spontaneous struggles, the masses will learn socialism, even by way of their own errors and also their defeats, as Rosa Luxemburg emphasized.
For her there was no doubt that, with the end of the war, the historical process of the liquidation of capitalism had begun. But she imagined this process as if it were for the proletariat a “Golgotha-path”, a road littered with defeats whose stages would have to be traversed one by one until the proletariat arrived, finally, after having learned from its own mistakes, at the last stage, that of the victorious proletarian revolution. She therefore said, “the victory of the Spartacus League comes not at the beginning, but at the end of the Revolution....”8
In fact, when Rosa Luxemburg spoke about spontaneous actions she was referring above all to the mass strikes, whose revolutionary potential she overestimated by thinking that it would be clearly revealed as the strikes continued to unfold. She thus did not take into account the degree of bourgeoisification of the masses, and made an abstraction out of their reformist aspirations; both factors prevented their actions from undergoing the developmental process she expected. In reality, only proletarian minorities were ready for the radical struggle. But these minorities, isolated from the rest of the proletariat, could not prevent their actions from being perceived as adventurist and oriented toward a coup d’état. Henceforth, the theory of spontaneous action could only deviate into pure spontaneism, with its anarchistic and “leftist” manifestations: with “action” everything will fall into place; all that is needed is for some determined minorities to come along and set an “example” in order to stir up the still complacent masses; the essential point was that this action not be burdened with obsolete organizational formalisms, such as parties, trade unions and other traditional institutions, since “the form of organization itself reduces the masses to impotence”, as Pannekoek asserted.9 Hence, after 1919, the split in the German communist party, which led the German communist workers party to form a fraction which, very much in the minority with its workers unions, would attempt until 1921 to “force the course of events” with its insurrections (as in the Ruhr Basin in 1920, and in Central Germany, in the Leuna factories, with the “March Action” of 1921 launched, of course, in collaboration with the other communist party) and expropriations (the armed gangs of Max Hölz), thus transforming spontaneism into pure voluntarism.
In short, the theory of spontaneous action, in the context of the epoch under consideration, was inapplicable. It led to a spontaneist and activist leftism that would in turn become the target of the Bolsheviks.
After 1914, Lenin thought that, because the Second International had collapsed in the “catastrophe” of August 1914, a new International had to be created as soon as possible. For Lenin and the Bolsheviks, the latter was the sine qua non for the triumph of the European revolution: the proletariat must organize internationally into a revolutionary political party so as to be able to consciously and effectively carry out its struggle. This perspective was correct on the level of Marxist principles, but the real question was the following: was the historical situation suitable for the formation of such a world party? Rosa Luxemburg and the Spartacists, agreeing with the principle of a new international, thought that it was not yet the right time to undertake such an enterprise. When the Spartacist delegate, Hugo Eberlein, went to Moscow in March 1919, he expressed this reticence at the founding congress of the Third International. The Spartacists pointed out that the forces that at that time were capable of regrouping around a new international were weak; in these conditions, would it not run the risk of being a completely artificial creation? Would it not be preferable to wait for a clear tendency in favor of revolution to take shape in the West before tackling the creation of a new international organization? Otherwise, in the absence of a united organization of real revolutionary forces, would it not run the risk of rapid degeneration by trying to attract the opportunist and neo-reformist elements that were swarming everywhere? By deciding to found the Third International in March 1919, the Bolsheviks would overrule all these objections at one stroke. For them, the conference of socialist parties held in Berne in February 1919 was nothing but “an attempt to revive the corpse of the II International”,10 since “the war of 1914 killed the Second International”.11 The latter is therefore declared dead. As for whether or not the objective situation lends itself to the foundation of a new international, there can be no doubt about it, since “a new system has been born. Ours is the epoch of the breakdown of capital, its internal disintegration, the epoch of the Communist revolution of the proletariat.... The old capitalist ‘order’ has ceased to function; its further existence is out of the question”.12
In fact, the real founding congress of the Third International was held in July 1920 in Moscow. At this congress, attended by revolutionaries from all over the world, the famous “21 Conditions” for admission to the new international were publicized. Their real purpose was to serve as discriminating criteria to provoke splits within the socialist parties: this is what happened at Tours in December 1920 and at Livorno in January 1921 at the congresses of the French and Italian socialist parties. Employed in such a fashion as to separate the good wheat remaining in the socialist parties from the opportunist and reformist chaff, it was implicitly acknowledged that there were still signs of life in the old international which was therefore not altogether the “corpse” that it was diagnosed in 1919. But did this “good wheat” exist in the quality and the quantity that was necessary to form strong parties capable of attracting the masses to the revolution?
The Bolsheviks soon discovered that by proceeding in this manner the communist parties only attracted weak minorities. This caused them to want to provide them with consistency in a voluntarist and artificial way, broadcasting the slogan of “mass communist parties”, although for this purpose they had to operate in a completely different way than they had shortly before: instead of splits, provoking “mergers” between the communist parties and the currents that were considered to be “leftist” and which belonged to the socialist milieu, as in Germany, where, in December 1920, a “unified” communist party was created with part of the “independent socialists”, while the split that had given birth to the communist party in Italy was labeled as “too leftist”, because it had resulted in a party that was “too small”.
But there was more. The Bolsheviks, who were also aware of the fact that the parties in the Second International still maintained their influence over the majority of the working class, then issued the slogan of the “united front”, whose goal was to “conquer” the working class and to “drag” the workers from the grips of social democratic influence. How? It was proposed that they march side by side with the communist workers in order to win the immediate demands that affected the entire working class. By acting in this way, knowing in advance that the leaderships of the socialist parties rejected such a “united front”, which was supposed to be based on the “rank and file”, it was hoped that the masses of the workers would “be made to understand” that their parties not only betrayed them in the fight for socialism, but also deceived them with regard to their struggles for the most urgent demands; from that time forward, the proletariat, observing that their leaders were opposed to such unified action, even with respect to limited goals, would discover that those leaders were “social-traitors” who would be “unmasked” as such....
Such was the manipulative tactic upon which the Bolsheviks counted to undo the preponderant influence of the socialist parties. Such a tactical subterfuge, besides the fact that it served to acknowledge that these parties, which had shortly before been declared “dead”, were still alive, could fool nobody (the social democratic parties anticipated this last-ditch maneuver) nor were those who were the targets of this attempted deception swayed by its purposes (since the workers were reformists, why should they have to transfer their allegiance to the communists who, under the rubric of fighting for immediate demands, really wanted to lead them to revolution?). It could only fail, since it was perfectly illusory, and false from the theoretical perspective, to believe that the radicalization of the masses and the consolidation of the communist parties depended on such a tactic rather than on a revolutionary historical situation which, in fact, did not exist. Failing, this tactic could only degenerate: from a united front initially conceived as based on the rank and file, it was transformed into a proposal for an alliance “from above”, that is, with the social democratic leaders (who until that moment were still justly called “traitors” and “assassins” of the German revolution), and furthermore from a perspective that had lost all revolutionary purpose. From then on, everything that had been said against the social democrats would be rescinded. There was no longer any fundamental difference in the eyes of the workers, who considered that the parties were “enemy brothers” who had to be reconciled for the struggle for the same reformism: all this would be perfected in 1936 with the French and Spanish “popular fronts”, which no longer had anything to do with the proletarian revolution but which witnessed, to the contrary, the parties of the defunct Third International wave the national flag ... to win reforms!
It is easy to draw up an assessment of the Third International. It was nothing but an artificial and voluntarist creation. Even during the “golden age” of the first four congresses (1919-1922), it achieved nothing but to provide a stage for clever opportunists (Cachin and Frossard were their representatives in France), idealists who believed in the myth of “socialism” in Russia and a so-called “leftist” fraction, the spearhead in the early days of the international, but which would be excluded soon enough or would exclude itself, leaving the door open, after 1924, for a new opportunism, illustrated by the slogan “socialism in one country”, which, with the attempted “Bolshevization” of the communist parties, were brought to heel. International only in name, it would become the docile instrument of a State that, for its part, had nothing to do with workers except its name. Which amounts to the fact that it only lasted four years, blazing like a meteor across the empty sky of the European proletarian revolution!
Against the Current of History
By trying to provoke a European revolution, the Bolsheviks did not intend to cut short the historical career of capitalism, since they thought that the latter had reached its end and that, consequently, the era of the proletarian communist revolution had been inaugurated. Thus, Lenin had assumed that revolution was imminent in 1918-1919. At the time he believed it would break out in a matter of days, of months, or at most in one or two years. It is true that, after 1920, after the crushing of the Spartacists and the collapse of the council republic in Hungary, he was obliged to admit that the coup de grâce would be more difficult to deliver than he at first believed. If the revolution had been easy to begin in Russia, “it is more difficult for Western Europe to start a socialist revolution than it was for us”,13 he conceded. However, he never ceased to believe that “capitalism is historically obsolete”, that “the era of the dictatorship of the proletariat had begun” and that, even if for the time being the revolution seems less imminent, it was only momentarily postponed: “Ten or twenty years more or less does not matter from the perspective of universal history”, Lenin noted. As a result of this delay, one simply had to make some modifications of communist tactics. Instead of a direct, frontal and insurrectionary tactic, one had to adopt a “more flexible” tactic, one still evolving “on the terrain of capitalism”, both in the reformist trade unions, which had to be penetrated, as well as in the bourgeois parliaments, sending communist deputies to the latter whose task would be to “sabotage them” and “discredit them” in the eyes of the masses. All this was not understood by the “leftists”, especially the Germans, who still followed the old frontal tactic, and who thus took “their desires, their ideological and political perceptions, for objective reality”. Once again, however, this “realism” of Lenin must not be mistaken for a renunciation of revolution. The latter was still for him a perspective inscribed in the imperative of history. But was history really moving in this direction?
The Bolsheviks’ analysis held that capitalism, since 1914, had entered into a stage “in which it rots”, of “decomposition”, accompanied by violent upheavals, such as the war that had devastated Europe for four years. As a consequence, the theory of Bernstein and all the reformists, according to which capitalism had stabilized and it was only necessary to adapt to it in order to gradually inaugurate what they called “socialism”, was rendered null and void. To the contrary, the Marxist and revolutionary theory of the collapse of capitalism had come into its own. The perspective of the revolution appeared to have a real basis, and to want to prepare for it and to organize it were no less legitimate: this was not an attack on a system in full flower, but on one in a full-blown crisis that, even if it did benefit from a brief respite, was only destined to slip into a still more violent crisis.
If it is true that the capitalist system had entered into a full-blown crisis after 1914, this does not mean, however, that history was moving in the direction of the communist revolution. The rapid suppression of the few revolutionary attempts of the post-war years provides testimony to this fact. In reality, 1914 inaugurated not a revolutionary, but a reactionary period, a stage not of the advance of capitalism towards its final historical crisis, but of regression, which we shall investigate in the chapter “The Revolution and Capitalism’s Prospects” below. From then on, the revolution could only inscribe itself as a countercurrent of history: after the timid manifestations in Europe, it was quickly rejected and erased.
The Bolsheviks were the heart and the soul of this impossible European revolution. Despite their error regarding the nature of the historical period, as well as their debatable tactical methods, one must render homage to the immense effort they undertook between 1917 and 1923 to change the course of history. They attracted the anti-communist hatred of all the powers of the era, the Poincarés, the Clemenceaus, the Lloyd Georges, the Wilsons, the terrified bourgeoisie, the déclassé petit bourgeoisie like Mussolini and Hitler, the caste of aristocratic officials of the old regime, not to forget the masses of the social-reformists of every stripe, as well as the numerous libertarians who added their voices14 to this clamorous mob.
Because they failed in their attempt, however, the only revolution that was successful, in a backward country, in Russia, could only be tragically isolated, and at the same time was destined to collapse, and in the worst way: degenerating, rotting on its feet. And, in the final analysis, if one is seeking the principle cause for this inglorious end and debasement, its source will be found in the voluntarist and utopian action of October 1917, when Lenin and the Bolsheviks forced the course of history.
- 1Quoted by Pierre Broué in The German Revolution, Ed. de Minuit, 1971, p. 137.
- 2Rosa Luxemburg, What Does the Spartacus League Want?, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, p. 376.
- 3Pierre Broué, op. cit., p. 245.
- 4Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Serge Bricianer, ed., Pannekoek and the Workers Councils, E.D.I., Paris, 1969, p. 171. In English, see Serge Bricianer, ed., Pannekoek and the Workers’ Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978, p. 182.
- 5Rosa Luxemburg, The Crisis in German Social Democracy, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, p. 325.
- 6Rosa Luxemburg, “Our Program and the Political Situation”, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, New York, 1971, p 406. Available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/luxemburg/1918/12/30.htm
- 7Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, in Serge Bricianer, ed., Pannekoek and the Workers’ Councils, Telos Press, St. Louis, 1978, pp.185-186. Online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/tactics/ch03.htm
- 8Rosa Luxemburg, What Does the Spartacist League Want?, in Selected Political Writings of Rosa Luxemburg, ed. Dick Howard, Monthly Review Press, 1971, p. 376.
- 9Anton Pannekoek, World Revolution and Communist Tactics, op. cit., p. 191. Online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/tactics/ch05.htm
- 10First Congress of the Communist International, “Resolution on the Attitude Towards the Socialistic Currents and the Berne Conference”, available online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/1st-congress/socialists.htm
- 11First Congress of the Communist International, “Manifesto of the Communist International to the Workers of the World”, available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1924/ffyci-1/ch01.htm
- 12First Congress of the Communist International, “Platform of the Communist International”, available online at: http://www.marxists.org/history/international/comintern/1st-congress/platform.htm
- 13V. I. Lenin, “Left-Wing Communism”: An Infantile Disorder, Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1970, pp. 59-60. Available online at: http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1920/lwc/ch07.htm
- 14Kropotkin, for example, declared in The Observer (London), on January 30, 1921: “If I could live my life all over again, I would spend it fighting Bolshevism to my last breath”.