It is 80 years since the First World War inaugurated the epoch of capitalism’s decadence, “the era of war or revolution” as the Communist International called it. However, while the imperialist war demonstrated the future that decadent capitalism had to offer humanity, the revolutionary wave, that put an end to the war and made the bourgeois order tremble from South Africa to Germany, from Russia to Canada, made clear that there is only one alternative to capitalist barbarity: the workers’ world revolution.
This proletarian wave, whose high point was the Russian Revolution (see International Review nos 72, 73 and 75), constitutes an extraordinary fount of lessons for the workers’ movement. The 1917-23 wave definitively confirmed, at the level of the world wide class struggle in the decadent period of capitalism, the majority of the positions that revolutionaries defend today (against the unions and “Socialist” Parties, against “national liberation” struggles, the necessity of the generalized organization of the class in Workers’ Councils). In the present article we are going to concentrate on four questions:
* How the revolutionary wave turned imperialist war into a civil war between classes
* How it demonstrated Communist historical theses on the international character of the proletarian revolution
* How, despite being the factor that unleashed the revolutionary wave, war does not pose the most favorable conditions for the revolution
* The dominant character of the struggle of the proletariat in the most developed countries of capitalism.
It was the revolutionary wave that put an end to World War I
In International Review no 78 (“Polemic with Programme Comunista, Il”) we show how the explosion of the war in 1914 was not directly due to economic causes, but because the bourgeoisie had brought about, due to the domination of reformist ideology in the “Social Democratic” parties, the ideological defeat of the proletariat. At the same time neither did the end of the war depend on, as they say, the bourgeoisie’s “balancing the books” and concluding that the butchery had been “sufficient”, to swap the “business” of destruction for that of reconstruction. Nor in November 1918 was there a clear military defeat of the central powers by the Entente powers. In reality what forced the Kaiser to ask for an armistice was the necessity to form a front against the revolution which was spreading throughout Germany. If for their part the Entente powers did not take advantage of their enemy’s weakness, it was due to the need to close ranks against the common threat, represented by the workers’ revolution. In the countries of the Entente the revolution was still maturing. How did the proletarian response to the
With the unfolding of the slaughter the proletariat began to shake off the weight of its defeat in August 1914. Already in February 1915, the workers of the Clyde Valley (Great Britain had carried out a wildcat strike (against the advice of the union); this example was followed by workers in the arms industry and by Liverpool engineering workers. In France a strike by textile workers in Vienne and Lagors broke out. A general strike by the workers of Petrograd in 1916 stopped an attempt by the government to militarize workers. In Germany, the Spartacus League called a demonstration of workers and soldiers, under the slogans of “Down ‘with the war!”, “Down with the government!”. “Hunger mutinies” took place in Silesia, Dresden … It was in this climate of accumulating signs of discontent that news of the February Revolution in Russia arrived.
In April 1917 a wave of strikes broke out in Germany (Halle, Kiel, Berlin, … ). Near insurrection took place in Leipzig and as in Russia, the first Workers’ Councils were formed. On the 1st of May, in the trenches of the Eastern Front, Red Flags were flown in the German trenches and in the Russian. German soldiers passed a leaflet from hand to hand that said:
“Our heroic Russian brothers have thrown off the damned yoke of the butchers of their country ( … ) Your happiness, your progress, depends on your ability to follow and take further the example of your Russian brothers … A victorious revolution will not demand as many sacrifices as this savage war … ”
In France, in a climate of workers strikes (that of the Paris engineering workers spread to 100,000 workers in other industries), on the same 1st Maya meeting in solidarity with the Russian workers, proclaimed “The Russian Revolution is the signal for the world revolution”. At the front illegal Soldiers’ Councils circulated revolutionary propaganda and collected a levy from the soldiers’ meager wages in order to help sustain the strikes in the rear.
At the same time in Italy massive rallies took place against the war. In Turin during one of these, a slogan arose that was constantly repeated throughout the country: “we should do as in Russia”. In October 1917 soldiers and workers throughout the world looked towards Petrograd and “We should do as in Russia” was turned into a powerful stimulus to mobilize for the definitive end to the imperialist massacre.
Likewise, in Finland (where there had already been an attempted insurrection a few days after that in Petrograd) in January 1918 armed workers occupied public buildings in Helsinki and the South of the country. In Rumania at the same time, the Russian Revolution found an immediate echo. The Black Sea Fleet rebelled forcing an armistice with the Central Powers. In Russia the October revolution put an end to participation in the war, even submitting to the occupation of large areas of Russia by the Central Powers, under the so-called Peace of Brest-Litovsk, in the hope of the explosion of the world revolution.
In January 1918, the workers of Vienna learnt of the draconian “peace” conditions that the Austro- Hungarian government wanted to impose on the Russian Revolution. Confronted with the perspective of the continuation of the war Daimler workers unleashed a strike that within a few days had spread to 700,000 workers throughout the Empire, forming the first Workers’ Councils. In Budapest, the strike spread under the slogan of “down with the war!”, “Long live the Russian workers!”, It was only the insistent calls for calm by the “Socialists”, that calmed the strike wave, though not without resistance, and defeated the revolt of the fleet in Cattaro. In Germany at the end of January there were also one million strikers. However, the workers left the running of the struggle in the hands of the “socialists” who agreed with the unions and the Military High Command to put an end to the strikes, sending more than 30,000 of the most prominent workers in the strike to the front. In this same period in the mines of Dombrowa and Lublin the first Workers’ Councils in Poland were formed.
The movement against the war and in solidarity with the Russian Revolution was also growing in Britain. The visit of the Soviet Delegate Litvinov coincided in January 1918 with a wave of strikes and provoked such demonstrations in London that the bourgeois newspaper (The Herald) called them the “Workers’ ultimatum to the government demanding peace”. In France a strike broke out at Renault in May 1918, which rapidly spread to 250,000 workers in Paris. In solidarity the workers of the Loire region went back on strike and controlled the region for ten days.
Nevertheless, the last military offensives caused a momentary paralysis of these struggles. After the fiasco of these offensives the workers were convinced that the only way to stop the war was the class struggle. October saw a struggle by day laborers and a revolt against the dispatch of the most” Red” regiments from Budapest to the front, as well as massive strikes and demonstrations in Austria. On the 4th of November the bourgeoisie of the “double crown” retired from the war.
In Germany, the Kaiser attempted to “democratize” the regime (freeing Liebknecht, incorporating the “Socialists” into the government) in order to demand the “last drop of blood of the German people”. However on the 3rd of November the sailors at Kiel refused to obey the officers who wanted to make one last suicidal attempt by the fleet to break out of the port. The Red Flag was hoisted throughout the fleet, and along with the workers of the city, they organized a Workers’ Council. Within a few days the insurrection had spread to the main German cities. On the 9th of November when the insurrection reached Berlin the German bourgeois, not wanting to make the same mistake committed by the Provisional government in Russia (prolonging participation in the war, which only served to ferment and radicalize the revolution) called for an armistice. On the 11th of November, the bourgeoisie put an end to the imperialist war in order to confront the class struggle.
The international nature of the working class and its’ revolution
Unlike the revolutions of the bourgeoisie that were limited to implementing capitalism in their nation, the proletarian revolution is by necessity worldwide. While the bourgeois revolutions could be spread out over more than a century, the revolutionary struggle of the proletariat tends, by its very nature, to take the form of a gigantic wave which spread throughout the planet. This has always been the historical thesis of revolutionaries. Engels already demonstrated this in the Principles of Communism:
“Question 19 – Will this revolution be made in one country? Answer – No. Major industry in creating the world market has drawn the people of the world so closely together, particularly the most advanced nations, that each nation is dependent on what happens in every other. It has furthermore regimented social development in the advanced countries to the point that, in all countries, the bourgeois and the proletariat have become the two decisive classes in society, and the struggle between these classes has become the major struggle in our epoch. The communist revolution, therefore, will not be a purely national one, it will erupt simultaneously, ie in England, America, France and Germany (…) It is a universal revolution and therefore, it will also develop on a universal terrain”.
The revolutionary wave of 1917-23 fully confirmed this. In 1919, the British Prime Minister wrote: “The whole of Europe is filled with the spirit of revolution. There is a deep sense not only of discontent but anger and revolt amongst the workmen against pre-war conditions. The whole existing order in its’ political, social and economic aspects is questioned by the masses of the population from one end of Europe to the other” (Quoted in E H Carr’s The Bolshevik Revolution. Vo13).
However, the proletariat was unable to transform this formidable wave of struggles into a unified struggle. We will first look at the facts in order to be better able to analyze the obstacles the proletariat ran up against in the generalization of the revolution.
1. From November 1918 to August 1919. The attempted revolutions in the defeated countries …
When the revolution began in Germany, three important detachments of the central European proletariat (Holland, Switzerland and Austria) had in practice already been neutralized.
In Holland, in October 1918, mutinies broke out in the army (the High Command scuttled its own Fleet before the sailors could seize control of it), while workers in Amsterdam and Rotterdam formed Workers’ Councils. However, the “Socialists” “joined” the revolt in order to neutralize it. Their leader, Troelstra recalled much later “If I had not made a revolutionary intervention, the most energetic workers would have taken the road of Bolshevism” (P.J. Troelstra De Revolutie en de SDAP)
Thus, disorganized by their “leaders”, separated from the help of the soldiers, the struggle ended with the machine gunning of workers, who on the 13th of November had united in a meeting near Amsterdam. The “Red Week” ended with 5 dead and dozens wounded.
In Switzerland on the same 13th of November, there was a general strike of 400,000 workers in protest against the use of troops against a demonstration celebrating the 1st anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The workers’ newspaper “Volksrecht” proclaimed “Resist until the last. We are strengthened by the revolution in Austria and Germany, the workers’ action in France, the movement of the proletariat in Holland and, above all, through the revolution in Russia”.
But here also the “Socialists” and the unions called for an end to the struggle in order “not to place the unarmed masses under the guns of the enemy”. It was precisely the disorientation and division that they created in the proletariat, that opened the doors to the terrible repression that defeated the “great strike”. The “pacifist” Swiss government militarized the railways, organized counter-revolutionary guards, flattened workers’ centers without any scruples. Hundreds of workers were arrested, and the
death penalty introduced for “Subversives”.
In Austria, the Republic was proclaimed on the 12th of November. When the national red and white flag was hoisted, groups of workers tore off the white boarder. Men climbed onto the statue of Pallas Athena in the center of Vienna, and before an assembly of tens of thousands of workers, various speakers called for moving directly to the dictatorship of the proletariat. But the “Socialists” who had been called into government as the only party with any influence on the workers, declared that “The proletariat already has power. The workers’ party governs the Republic” and systematically moved to neutralize the revolutionary organs, transforming the Workers’ Councils into Councils of Production and the Soldiers’ Councils into Army Committees (massively infiltrated by officers). The bourgeoisie’s counter-offensive not only paralyzed the Austrian proletariat, but served as an instruction manual for the German bourgeoisie’s counter -offensive.
In Germany, the Armistice and the proclamation of the Republic created a naive feeling of “triumph” for which the proletariat paid dearly. While the workers could not unify the different centers of struggle and vacillated about launching into the destruction of the state the counter-offensive was organized and coordinated by the unions, the “Socialist” Party and the military High Command. From December the bourgeoisie went onto the offensive constantly provoking the proletariat of Berlin, in order to isolate their struggle from the rest of the workers in Germany. On the 4th of January 1919, the government sacked the Chief-of-Police Eichhorn, challenging the workers’ opinion. On the 6th of January, half a million Berlin workers took to the streets. The following day the “socialist” Noske, commanding the Freicorps (demobilised officers and lower ranks, paid by the government) crushed the Berlin workers. Days later they murdered Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. Although the events in Berlin alerted workers in other cities (above all in Bremen where workers assaulted the union headquarters and distributed their funds to the unemployed), the government was able to fragment this response, in a way which allowed them to begin by concentrating on Bremen, then against the workers of the Rhineland and the Ruhr in order to return once again in March to the revolutionary embers in Berlin in the so-called “Bloody Week” (1,200 workers killed). After this they fell upon the workers of Mansfeld and Leipzig and the Republic of Councils in Magdeburg.
In March the workers in Munich proclaimed the Republic of Bavarian Councils, which along with the October Revolution in Russia and the Hungarian Revolution, constituted the only experiences of the workers taking power. The armed Bavarian workers were able to defeat the counter-revolutionary army sent against them by the deputy president Hoffmann. Nevertheless, as we have seen, the workers in the rest of Germany had suffered severe defeats and could not come to the aid of their brothers, while the bourgeoisie organized an army which from the beginning of May put down the insurrection. Amongst the troops who spread terror in Munich were Himmler, Rudolf Hess, Von Epp … future Nazi leaders. All them were encouraged in their anti-proletarian fury by a government that called itself “Socialist”.
On the 21st of March 1919, after a formidable wave of workers’ strikes and mutinies, the workers councils took power in Hungary. In a tragic error, the Communist unified, at this very moment, with the “Socialists” who sabotaged the revolution from within. At the same time the western “democracies” (especially England and France) immediately ordered an economic blockade to which was added military intervention by Rumanian and Czech troops. In May when the Bavarian Workers’ Councils fell, the situation for the Hungarian Revolution was also terrible. However, a formidable workers’ reaction, in which Hungarian, Austrian, Polish, Russian, but also Czech and Rumanian workers participated, broke the military blockade. In the long run however, the sabotage of the “Socialists” and the revolutions isolation got the better of the workers’ resistance and on the 1st of August Rumanian troops took Budapest, installing a union government that liquidated the Workers’ Councils. When the unions had finished their work they handed over command to Admiral Horty (another future collaborator with the Nazis) who unleashed a reign of terror against the workers (8,000 executed, 100,000 deportations). In the glow of the Hungarian revolution the miners of Dombrowa (Poland) took control of the region and formed a “Workers’ Guard” in order to defend themselves from the bloody repression of that other “Socialist” Pilsudski. When the Hungarian councils fell, the “Red Republic of Dombrowa” crumbled.
The Hungarian Revolution also provoked the last workers’ convulsions in Austria and Switzerland in June 1919, the Viennese police drawing the lessons of their German buddies, plotted a provocation (an assault on the headquarters of the Communist Party) in order to precipitate an insurrection when the whole of the proletariat was still weak and disorganized. The workers fell into the trap leaving 30 dead on the streets of Vienne. This also happened in Switzerland after a general strike in Zurich and Basle.
… and among the “victors”
In Great Britain, again in the Clyde region, at the beginning of 1919 more than 100,000 workers were on strike. On the 31st of January (“Red Friday”) during a workers’ rally in Glasgow, workers confronted troops and artillery sent by the government. Miners were ready to begin a strike, but the unions managed to stop it “Giving a margin of confidence to the government in order that it could study the nationalization of the mines” (Hinton and Hyman: Trade Unions and Revolution).
In Seattle (United States) at the same time a strike of shipyard workers broke out which within a few days had spread to all the workers in the city. Through mass assemblies and an elected and revocable strike committee, the workers controlled the city’s food supply and organized self-defense against the troops sent by the government. However, the “Seattle Commune” remained isolated and a month later (after hundreds of arrests) the shipyard workers returned to work. Other strikes broke out, such as that of the miners in Butte (Montana) where a Workers’ and Soldiers’ Council was formed, and the strike by 400,000 steel workers. Here again, the struggles failed to unify.
In Canada during the Winnipeg General Strike in May 1919, the local Government organized a patriotic meeting in order to try and counteract the pressure from the workers with the chauvinism of victory. But the soldiers “threw away the script” and after recounting the horrors of the war proclaimed the necessity to “transform the imperialist war into class war” which radicalized the movement even more, leading to its spreading to Toronto. Nevertheless, the workers left the direction of the struggle to the unions who lead them to isolation and defeat and the terror of the city’s thugs, whom the government called “special commissioners”.
But the wave did not remain just in the countries directly effected by the imperialist slaughter. In Spain in 1919, a strike broke out at La Canadiense, and spread rapidly through the industrial belt of Barcelona. While on the walls of the haciendas (the houses of the great landowners) in Andulucia, the semi-literate day labors wrote “Viva los Soviets! Viva Lenin!”. The mobilization of the day laborers during 1918-19 has gone down in history as the “Bolshevik two years”.
Concentrations of workers outside Europe and North America also took part in the wave.
In Argentina, at the beginning of 1919, in the so-called “Bloody Week” in Buenos Aires a general strike took place in response to the repression inflicted on the workers at the Talleras Vasena factory. After 5 days of street fighting and artillery bombardments of workers’ areas, 3,000 were left dead. In Brazil, the strike of200,000 workers in Sao Paulo saw the troops sent by the government fraternizing with the workers. At the end of 1918 a “Workers’ Republic” was proclaimed in the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio de Janeiro, which, however, remained isolated and collapsed faced with the state of siege imposed by
In South Africa, the land of “racial hatred”, the workers’ struggles made clear the necessity and possibility of the workers struggling together “The working class of South Africa cannot gain its liberation until it overcomes the racial prejudices and hostility towards the workers of other colors within its ranks” (The International, newspaper of the Industrial Workers of Africa). In March 1919 a tram strike spread to all of Johannesburg, with assemblies and meetings in solidarity with the Russian Revolution. While in Japan, in 1918, the so-called “Rice Mutinies” developed against the sending of rice to Japanese troops who were participating in the counter-revolution in Russia.
2. 1919-1921: The late re-awakening of the proletariat in the “victorious” countries and the weight of the defeat in Germany
In this first phase of the revolutionary wave the proletariat played for high stakes. First, the suffocating isolation of the revolutionary bastion in Russia had to be ended. But the very fate of the revolution was being decided. The strongest proletarian detachments – Germany, Austria, Hungary – had entered the combat, and their strength and experience would determine the future of the world revolution. Nonetheless, the first phase of the revolutionary wave ended, as we have seen, with profound defeats for the proletariat, from which it was unable to recover.
In Germany, the workers supported in March 1919 the general strike called by the unions against the “Kapp Putsch”, in order to reinstate the “democratic” Scheidemann government. The workers of the Ruhr however, were not willing to return to power those who had already murdered 30,000 workers, and they armed themselves forming the “Red Army of the Ruhr”. In some cities (Duisberg) they went as far as arresting the union and socialist leaders. But once again the struggle remained isolated. At the beginning of April the reconstituted German Army smashed the Ruhr revolt.
In 1921, the German bourgeoisie devoted itself to “cleansing” the revolutionary remnants who remained in Central Germany, plotting new provocations (the assault on the Leuna factories in Mansfeld). The Communists of the KPD, completely disorientated, fell into the trap and ordered the “March Actions” in which the workers of Mansfeld, Halle, etc, despite their heroic resistance could not overcome the bourgeoisie, who made good use of the dispersion of the movement, to massacre first the workers of Central Germany and then the workers of Hamburg, Berlin and the Ruhr who showed solidarity with them.
Given that the struggle of the working class is by essence international, what happens in one country has repercussions on what happens in others. Therefore, when after the euphoria caused by “victory” in the war, the proletariats of Britain, France and Italy joined the struggle en masse, the successive defeats suffered by their class brothers in Germany deepened the weight of the most nefarious mystifications: nationalization, “workers’ control” of production, trust in the unions, lack of trust in the proletariat.
In Britain a hard-fought rail strike broke out in September 1919. Despite intimidation by the bourgeoisie (warships in the Thames estuary, soldiers patrolling the streets of London) the workers did not give in. What is more the transport workers and workers in electric businesses wanted to call a strike, but the unions stopped them. The same would happen later when the miners called on the solidarity of the rail workers. The kind-hearted union proclaimed: “Why the dangerous adventure of a general strike? Seeing we have within our grasp a much simpler, less costly and undoubtedly less dangerous means. We must show the workers that a much better way forwards is to intelligently use, the power that the most democratic constitution in the world offers them and that will allow them to gain all they desire” (Quoted by EdouardDolleans, Historia del Moviemento Obrero) To immediately prove this to the workers, “the most democratic bourgeoisie in the world” hired thugs, strikebreakers and provocateurs … and made one million workers unemployed.
Nonetheless, the workers still had confidence in the unions. And they paid a very dear price for this: In April 1921 the miners called for a general strike, but were confronted with the refusal of the unions to back them (April the 15th, will always remain in workers memory as “Black Friday”) which left the miners isolated, confused and open to the government’s attacks. Once the main workers’ detachments were defeated, the bourgeoisie “allowed the workers to gain all they desire” – wage cuts for over
7 million workers.
In France the worsening of the workers’ living conditions (above all due to the scarcity of fuel and food) let loose a train of workers’ struggles from the beginning of 1920. From February the epicenter of the movement was the rail strike that, despite opposition from the union, spread to and generated workers’ solidarity in other sectors. Faced with this the CGT union decided to place itself at the head of the strike and to “support” it through the tactic of “waves of assault”, or rather on one day the miners would strike, on another engineering workers … and in this way workers solidarity did not tend to draw together, but to disperse and die. By the 22nd of May the rail workers were isolated and defeated (18,000 disciplinary sackings). It is true that the unions were “discredited” in front of the workers (membership fell by 60%) but their work of sabotaging the workers struggles had born fruit for the bourgeoisie: the French proletariat was defeated and left open to the punitive expeditions of the “Civic Leagues”.
In Italy, where throughout 1917-19 formidable workers’ struggles had broken out against the imperialist war and the sending of supplies to the troops fighting against the Russian Revolution, the proletariat was, however, unable to launch an assault against the bourgeois state. In the summer of 1920, due to the collapse of numerous businesses, a fever of “factory occupations” broke out, which were supported by the unions since, in reality, they diverted the proletariat away from the confrontation with the bourgeois state, and channeled them into the “control of production” instead. Suffice it to say that the government of Giolitti told businessmen that “we are not going to use military force to dislodge the workers, since this would move the struggle from the factory to the street” (Quoted in M Ferrare, Conversando con Togliatti). The workers’ combativity was wasted in these factory occupations. The defeat of this movement, although in 1921 there were new and isolated strikes in Lombardy and Venice, opened the door to the counter-revolution, which in this case took the form of Fascism.
In the United States, the working class also suffered important defeats (the strikes in the coal mines and in the lignite mines of Alabama, and on the railways) in 1920. The capitalist counter-offensive imposed “open contracts” (the impossibility of collective bargaining), which brought about a 30 % reduction in wages.
3. The last death rattles of the revolutionary wave
From 1921, although there were still heroic expressions of workers’ combativity, the revolutionary wave had already entered into its terminal phase. Even more so when the weight of the workers’ defeats led the revolutionaries of the Communist International into increasingly serious errors (the application of the policy of the “United Front”, support for “national liberation” movements, expulsion of the fractions of the revolutionary left from the International…) that at the same time led to more confusions and important failures which, in a dramatic spiral, led to new defeats.
In Germany the workers’ combativity was diverted increasingly towards “anti-fascism” (for example when the ultra-right killed Erzberger, or when a warmonger wanted to “raze” Kiel in November 1918) or towards the nationalist terrain. Faced with the invasion of the Ruhr by French and Belgian troops in 1923, the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) raised the abject flag of “National-Bolshevism”, claiming that the proletariat should defend the “German Fatherland”, as something progressive, faced with the imperialist aggression represented by the powers of the Entente. In October of the same year, the Communist Party that had joined the governments of Saxony and Thuringia, decided to provoke insurrections beginning on the 20th of October in Hamburg. When the workers of this city rose up in revolt the Communist Party decided to retreat, which left them to face a cruel repression on their own. The exhausted, demoralized, crushed German proletariat had sealed its own defeat. Days later, Hitler led his famous “bierkeller putsch” an attempted Nazi uprising in a beerhall in Munich, which failed for the time being (Hitler came to power by the “parliamentary road” ten years later).
In Poland, the proletariat that in 1920 had closed ranks with its bourgeoisie against the invasion of the Red Army, returned to its class terrain in 1923 with a new wave of strikes. But the international isolation that this struggle suffered allowed the bourgeoisie to keep the initiative in its hands and to mount all kinds of provocations (the burning of the Warsaw Arsenal for which the Communists were accused) in order to confront the workers when they were dispersed. On the 6th of November an insurrection broke out in Krakow against the killing of two workers, but the lies of the “Socialists” (who got the workers to hand in their arms) lead to the disorientation and demoralization of the workers. Despite the wave of solidarity strikes with Krakow that took place in Domdrowa, Gornicza, Tarnow … within a few days the bourgeoisie had extinguished this workers’ uprising. In 1926 the Polish proletariat would be the cannon fodder of the inter-bourgeois struggles between the “Philo-fascist” government and Pilsudski who the “left” supported as the “defender of Liberty”.
In Spain the successive waves of struggle were systematically held in check by the “Socialist” Party and the UGT, which allowed General Primo de Rivera to impose his dictatorship in 1923.
In Great Britain, after some partial and very isolated struggles (the marches of the unemployed on London in 1921 and 1923 or the all-out strike of construction workers in 1924) the bourgeoisie imposed a final defeat in 1926. After another wave of miners’ strikes, the unions organized the “General Strike” which they called off 10 days later, leaving the miners alone to return to work in December having suffered thousands of sackings, After the defeat of this struggle the counter-revolution reigned in Europe.
Also in this phase of the definitive decline of the revolutionary wave, there were defeats of the proletarian movements in the countries of the periphery of capitalism:
In South Africa, the “Red revolt of the Transvaal” in 1922 against the replacing of white workers by black workers on lower wages, spread to workers of both races and other sectors (coalmines, railways … ) until it took insurrectional forms.
In 1923 Dutch troops and thugs hired by the planters were used against a rail strike that spread from Java to Surabaj and Jemang (Indonesia).
In China, the proletariat had been dragged (following the infamous thesis of the CI which supported “national liberation” movements) into supporting the actions of the nationalist bourgeoisie grouped around the Kuomintang, which however had no hesitation in savagely repressing the workers when they struggled on their class terrain (for example the general strike in Canton in 1925). In February and March 1927 the workers of Shanghai launched insurrections in order to prepare the entry into the city of the nationalist general Chang-Kai-Shek. This “progressive” leader (according to the CI) did not hesitate to take hold of the city, in alliance with the shopkeepers, peasants, intellectuals and especially the lumpen elements, in order to crush with fire and blood the general strike directed by the Shanghai Workers’ Council in protest at the prohibition of strikes by the “liberator”. Even after two months of terror in the workers’ areas of Shanghai the Cl still supported the “Left wing” of the Kuomintang, based in Wuhan. This nationalist “left” did not vacillate in shooting down workers whose strikes “were irritating the foreigners ( .. .) impeding the progress of their commercial interests” (M. N. Roy, Revolution and Counter-Revolution in China). When the proletariat was already completely crushed, the CP decided to “pass over to the insurrection”, which did no more than make this defeat even worse: 2,000 workers were killed in the “Canton Commune” of December 1927.
This struggle of the Chinese proletariat marked the dramatic epilogue of the world revolutionary wave, and as the revolutionaries of the Communist Left analyzed, a decisive landmark in the passage of the “Communist” Parties into the camp of the counter-revolution. A counter-revolution that spread over the proletariat of the world, like an immense black night, for 40 years until the resurgence of the struggles of the working class in the middle of the 1960s.
War does not offer the most favorable conditions for revolution
Why did the revolutionary wave fail? Without a doubt the incomprehensions that the proletariat and revolutionaries had about the conditions of the new historical period of decadence, had a decisive weight; but we cannot forget how the objective conditions created by the imperialist war prevented this vast ocean of struggles from being channeled towards a unified combat. In “the historic conditions for the generalization of the struggle of the working class” (International Review no 26) we analyzed: “War is certainty a peak in the crisis of capitalism, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it is also a ‘response’ by capitalism to the crisis. It is an advanced moment of barbarism which as such does not greatly favor the conditions for the generalization of the revolution”.
We can see this from the facts of this revolutionary wave.
i) The war was a blood-letting for the proletariat. As Rosa Luxemburg explained:
“For the advance and victory of Socialism we need a strong, educated, ready proletariat, masses whose strength lies in knowledge as well as in numbers. And these very masses are being decimated all over the world. The flower of our youthful strength, hundreds of thousands whose Socialist education in England, in France, in Belgium, in Germany and in Russia was the product of decades of education and propaganda, other hundreds of thousands who were ready to receive the lessons of Socialism, have fallen, and are rotting upon the battlefields. The fruit of the sacrifices and the toil of generations is destroyed in a few short weeks, the choicest troops of the international proletariat are torn out by the roots” (The Junius Pamphlet).
A high percentage of the 70 million soldiers were proletarians who were replaced in the factories by women, or by workers recently brought from the colonies, with much less experience of struggle. Furthermore in the army the workers were diluted in an interclassist mass along with peasants, lumpens …. Thus the actions of the soldiers (desertions, insubordination…) though not benefiting the bourgeoisie, did not represent a terrain for genuinely proletarian struggle. For example, the desertions in the Austro-Hungarian army were in great part motivated by the refusal of Czechs, Hungarians…. to struggle for the Emperor in Vienna. The mutinies in the French army in 1917 did not question the war but “how to carry out the war” (the “inefficiency” of certain military actions … ). The radical nature and, consciousness of some of the soldiers actions (fraternizing with the soldiers on the “other side”, refusal to repress workers’ struggles…) were in reality the consequence of the mobilization in the rear… And when after the armistice, the question was posed of destroying capitalism to put an end to war, the soldiers represented the most vacillating and backward sector. This is why the German bourgeoisie, for example, deliberately overstated the weight of the Soldiers’ Councils compared to that of the Workers’ Councils.
ii) The proletariat did not “control” the war. The unleashing of war requires the defeat of the proletariat. This included the impact of the reformist ideology that was part of this defeat, also the cessation of struggles in 1914: for example in Russia a growing wave of struggles that had developed during 1912-13 came to an abrupt end.
But besides, during the course of the war, the class struggle was pushed into the background by the din of military operations. While military reverses accentuated discontent (for example, the failure of the Russian Army’s offensive in June 1917 brought about the “July days”), it is also certain that the offensives of the rival imperialisms and the success of their own, pushed the proletariat into the arms of the “interests of the fatherland”. Thus the spring of 1918, at a significant moment for the world revolution (only months after the October insurrection in Russia), produced the last German military offensives that:
– paralyzed the wave of strikes which from January had broken out in Germany and Austria, with the “success” of the conquests in Russia and the Ukraine, which military propaganda called “the peace of bread”.
– lead to French soldiers, who had been fraternizing with the workers of the Loire, closing ranks with their bourgeoisie. In the summer these same soldiers put down the strikes.
And what is more important, when the bourgeoisie saw that its domination was really threatened by the proletariat, it could put an end to the war, separating the revolution from its main stimulus. This question was not understood by the Russian bourgeoisie, but it was by the more prepared German bourgeoisie (and with them the rest of the world bourgeoisie). No matter how strong the imperialist antagonisms are between the different national capitals, the class solidarity of the different sections of the bourgeoisie is much stronger faced with the necessity to confront the proletariat.
In fact, the feeling of relief that the armistice generated in the workers weakened their struggle (as we saw in Germany) while, on the other hand, it reinforced the weight of bourgeois mystification. The bourgeoisie presented the imperialist war as an “anomaly” in the functioning of capitalism (the “Great War” was going to be “the war to end war ) trying to convince the working class that the revolution was not necessary because “everything would be as it was before”. The sensation of a “return to normality” strengthened the tools of the counter-revolution: the “Socialist” parties and their” gradual passage to Socialism”, the unions and their mystifications (“workers control of production”, nationalizations, … ).
iii) Finally the imperialist war broke the generalization of the revolution by fragmenting the workers’ response between those of the victorious and defeated countries. Though the governments were weakened by military defeat, the crumbling of the regime did not necessarily mean the strengthening of the proletariat. Thus after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the proletariat of the “oppressed nationalities” was dragged into the struggle for the “independence” of Czechoslovakia, Hungary, or Yugoslavia. The Hungarian workers who in October took Budapest, and the general strike in Slovakia in November 1920 … were diverted onto the rotten terrain of “national liberation”. In Galicia (then in Austria) what for years had been a movement against the war, was allowed to become demonstrations “for Polish independence and military victory over Germany!”. In its insurrectional attempt of November 1918, the proletariat in Vienna was to struggle practically alone.
In the defeated countries, the revolt was more rapid but also more desperate and therefore dispersed and disorganized. The anger of the workers of the defeated countries, when it remained isolated from the struggle of the workers of the victorious ones, could finally be diverted towards “revanchism”, as was seen in Germany in 1923, after the invasion of the Ruhr by Franco-Belgian troops.
In the victorious countries, on the other hand, the workers’ combativity was delayed by the chauvinist euphoria of victory. The workers’ struggle recovered slowly, as if the workers had been waiting for the “dividends of Victory”. Only once these illusions had been shattered by the brutality of post-war conditions (especially after 1920, when capitalism entered into a phase of economic crisis) did the workers of France, Britain, and Italy enter massively into struggle. However, by then the workers of the defeated countries had suffered decisive defeats. The fragmentation of the workers’ response between the victorious and defeated countries, moreover, allowed the world bourgeoisie to jointly coordinate their forces, in support of those fractions that at different times found themselves in the front line of the war against the proletariat. After the defeat of the Paris Commune, Marx had already denounced “The unprecedented fact that in the most terrible war of modern times, the victorious and defeated armies united faced with the common threat of the proletariat (…) Class domination cannot hid the fact that under the national uniform, all national governments are as one only against the proletariat” (Marx, The Civil War in France):
* Even before the end of the war, the Entente powers had turned a blind eye when German troops in March 1918 crushed the workers’ revolution in Finland or the revolt of the Hungarian Army at Vladai in September 1918.
* Faced with the German revolution, it was President Wilson (of the USA) who demanded that the Kaiser integrate the “socialists” into the government as the only force capable of confronting the revolution. A little later, the Entente gave the German government 5,000 machine guns with which to massacre the workers’ revolt. And in March 1919, Noske’s army would move, with the full consent of Clemenceau, into the Ruhr “demilitarized zone”, in order to smash one revolutionary focus after another…
* From the end of 1918, Vienna served as the coordination center of the counter-revolution, commanded by the sinister English colonel Cuningham who coordinated, for example, the counter-revolutionary actions of Czech and Rumanian troops in Hungary. When the army of the Hungarian Workers’ Councils attempted in July 1919 to carry out a military action on the Rumanian front, the troops of this country were waiting for them, since the Hungarian “socialists” had already informed the
Vienna “anti-Bolshevik center” about this operation.
* Along with military collaboration, came the blackmail of “humanitarian aid” which arrived from the Entente (especially from the USA), a condition of which was that the proletariat had to accept without protest exploitation and misery. When in March 1919, the Hungarian Councils called on the Austrian workers to enter into a common struggle with them, the “revolutionary” Frederik Adler answered them “You call on us to follow your example. We want to do this with all our hearts and will, but sadly we cannot. In our country there is no more food. We have been turned into complete slaves of the Entente” (Arbeiter-Zeitung, 23/3/1919)
In conclusion we can affirm that, contrary to what many other revolutionaries think, war does not create favorable conditions for the generalization of the revolution. This in no way means we are “pacifists” as some Bordigist groups claim. On the contrary, we defend as Lenin did that “the struggle for
peace without revolutionary action is an empty and lying phrase”. It is precisely our responsibility as the vanguard in this revolutionary struggle, that demands that we draw the lessons of the workers’ experience, and affirm that the movement against the economic crisis of capitalism that began at the end of the 60’s, although apparently less “radical”, more tortuous and contradictory, will establish a much firmer material base for the proletarian world revolution:
* The economic crisis affects all countries without exception. Independently of the level of devastation that the crisis can cause in the different countries, it is certain that there are neither “victors”, “vanquished”, nor “neutrals”.
* Unlike imperialist war, which the bourgeoisie could bring to an end faced with the threat of the workers’ revolution, world capitalism cannot stop the economic crisis, nor can it avoid the increasingly brutal attacks on the workers.
It is significant that the very groups that accuse us of being “pacifists” tend to under-estimate the workers struggles against the economic crisis.
The decisive role of the main proletarian concentrations
When the proletariat took power in Russia, the Mensheviks along with all the “socialists” and centrists, denounced the “adventurism” of the Bolsheviks, because the “backwardness” of Russia meant that it was not mature enough for the Socialist revolution. It was precisely the justified defense of the proletarian nature of the October revolution that led the Bolsheviks to explain the “paradox” of the world revolution arising from the struggle of a “backward” proletariat as in Russia, by means of the erroneous thesis which sees the chain of world imperialism being broken at its weakest link. Nevertheless, an analysis of the revolutionary wave permits the refutation from a Marxist viewpoint, both of the idea that the workers of the Third World will not be prepared for the socialist revolution, and of this idea’s apparent “antithesis”, that it will be easier for them.
1. The First World War represented the historic landmark of capitalism’s entry into its decadent phase. Which is to say that the preconditions for revolution (sufficient development of the productive forces and also of a revolutionary class. Within a moribund society) had been established at a worldwide level.
The fact that the revolutionary wave spread to every comer of the planet and that, in all countries, the workers’ struggles were confronted by the counter-revolutionary action of all the fractions of the bourgeoisie, made it clear that the proletariat (independently of the level of development the different countries had achieved) does not have different tasks in Europe or the so-called Third World. Thus, there is not a proletariat that is “prepared” for socialism (in the advanced countries) and a proletariat that is “too immature for revolution” that has to go through the “democratic-bourgeois phase”.
The revolutionary wave that we have been analyzing, demonstrated how the workers of backward Norway could discover that “The workers’ demands cannot be satisfied by parliamentary means, but only by the revolutionary actions of all workers” (Manifesto of the Cristiania Workers’ Council March 1918); how the Indonesia plantation workers or those of the Rio favelas formed Workers’ Councils, how Berber workers united with workers of European origin against the “nationalists” during the general strike in the Algerian ports in 1923…
To proclaim today, as some in the revolutionary milieu do, that the proletariat of these backward countries, unlike those of the advanced countries, must form unions, or support the “national” revolution of the “progressive” fractions of the bourgeoisie, is equivalent to throwing overboard the lessons of the bloody defeats suffered by these proletariats at the hands of the alliance of all the bourgeois fractions (“progressive” and reactionary) or of the unions (including the most radical ones, such as the anarchist ones in Argentina) who in the center and on the peripheries of capitalism demonstrated how they had been converted into agents of the capitalist state.
2. However, although the whole of capitalism and therefore the world proletariat, is “mature” for revolution, this does not mean that the world revolution could begin in any country or that the struggle of the workers of the most backward countries has the same responsibilities, the same determinant character, as the struggles of the proletariat of the most advanced countries. The revolutionary wave of 1917 -23 constantly demonstrated that the revolution can only start from the proletariats of the most developed capitalisms, that is to say those detachments of the working class which by the weight they have in society, by their accumulated historical experience gained through years of combat against the capitalist state and its mystifications, play a central and decisive role in the worldwide confrontation between the proletariat and the bourgeoisie:
The example of the struggle of the workers of the most developed countries, encouraged workers to form Workers’ Councils from Turkey (where in 1920 there existed a Spartacist group) and Greece to Indonesia and Brazil. In Ireland (a, proletariat that Lenin erroneously believed should struggle for “national liberation”), the influence of the revolutionary wave opened up an interval, when the workers instead of struggling alongside the Irish bourgeoisie for their “independence” from Great Britain, struggled on the terrain of the international proletariat. In the summer of 1920 the Limerick Workers Council was formed and in the West of the country a revolt of farm laborers broke out which was put down, as much by the IRA (when the workers occupied fauns owned by Irish landlords) as by the British troops.
When the bourgeoisie had defeated the decisive workers battalions in Germany, France, Britain, Italy … the world working class was decisively weakened, and the struggles of the workers in the countries on the periphery of capitalism could not change the course of the defeat of the world proletariat. The enormous demonstrations of courage and combativity given by the workers of America, Asia… separated from the contribution of the central battalions of the working class, were lost in serious confusions (as for example the revolution in China) which inevitably led them to defeat. In the countries were the proletariat is weakest, due to its scarce forces and experience, they were confronted, however, by the combined action of the bourgeoisies who have more experience in their class struggle against the proletariat.
Therefore the central link where the future of the revolutionary wave was decided was Germany, whose proletariat was a real beacon for the proletariat of the world. However, in Germany the most developed and conscious proletariat was confronted by a bourgeoisie that had accumulated a vast experience of confronting the proletariat. It is enough to see the “power” of the specific anti-worker apparatus of the German capitalist state: a “socialist” party and unions which maintained their organization and coordination at all moments in order to sabotage the revolution.
Therefore, in order to make the worldwide unification of the proletariat possible, it is necessary to overcome the most refined mystifications of the class enemy, the most powerful anti-worker apparatus… It is essential to defeat the strongest fraction of the world bourgeoisie and this can only be done by the world’s most developed and experienced working class.
Hence, the thesis that the revolution must necessarily follow from war, as with the “weakest link”, was an error of the revolutionaries of that period due to their desire to defend the proletarian world revolution. These errors, were however, converted into dogma by the triumphant counter-revolution after the defeat of the revolutionary wave, and today unfortunately form part of the Bordigist groups “doctrine”.
The defeat of the revolutionary wave of the proletariat of 1917 -23 does not mean that the proletarian revolution is impossible. On the contrary, almost 80 years later capitalism demonstrates, in war after war, barbarity after barbarity that it cannot escape from the historic morass of its decadence. And despite its limitations, the world proletariat has emerged from the night of counter-revolution to set a new course towards decisive class confrontations, towards a new revolutionary attempt. To triumph in this new world assault on capitalism, the working class will have to draw the on lessons of what constitutes its main historical experience. It is the responsibility of revolutionaries to abandon dogmatism and sectarianism, in order to be able to discuss and clarify the necessary balance sheet of this experience.