A return to Leninism: The centennial anniversary of the Comintern

Larry Holmes is the First Secretary of Workers World Party.

V.I. Lenin, the principal leader of the Russian Revolution, opened the first meeting of the Third Communist International — which came to be known as the Comintern — 100 years ago this March 2 in Moscow.  Fifty-one delegates were registered, representing 35 organizations from 22 countries. The modest numbers in attendance were in large part because imperialist countries had blockaded the Soviet Union, and it was hard to get to Moscow.  Every imperialist power that could muster forces, warships and weapons to support the counterrevolutionary forces invaded the Soviet Union.

However, the delegates to the meeting did not consider their small numbers to be significant. Provoked by the terror and suffering unleashed on the masses by the first imperialist world war and inspired by the Russian Revolution, the working class in the industrially advanced centers of imperialism — as well as the oppressed peoples in the vast areas of the world colonized by imperialism — were in motion. There was a sense that more revolutions were possible, even imminent.  Although attempts at repeating the Bolsheviks’ success in central and eastern Europe proved unsuccessful, they were nonetheless taken very seriously by the capitalist ruling class.

‘Revolutionary wave’ of the working class

What was then called by some the “revolutionary wave” of the working class rolled across the oceans to U.S. shores. The great Seattle general strike of 1919 preceded the Moscow meeting by a few weeks.  

Bearing in mind the main cause of the collapse of the Second International — the failure of some workers’ parties to break with their ruling classes over the war — Lenin wanted to invite to the Moscow meeting only those who were dedicated to revolution and who would never repeat the mistakes that doomed the previous International. The Comintern resolved to “struggle by all available means, including armed force, for the overthrow of the international bourgeoisie” and for its replacement by a world confederation of soviets based on socialism.

Even though the war had just ended, revolutionaries the world over could see the seeds of the next world war in the crises of capitalism. The Comintern was determined to do all it could to turn imperialist war into a civil war between the workers and the imperialists — a war that would end with the victory of world socialism.

That the Soviet Union, as a matter of survival, would have no other choice than to adapt itself to the conditions of the world class struggle at any particular time is a given. However, Lenin understood that the fate of the Russian Revolution was ultimately dependent on more revolutions — in essence, on world revolution. As such, the Comintern’s orientation was not to reduce internationalism to symbolic acts of solidarity — but rather to coordinate the actual world struggle for the victory of communism over capitalism at the earliest possible opportunity.

It was Lenin’s view that no working-class party could base its analysis and goals on conditions in its own country alone, but rather on an accurate analysis of capitalist crises and the state of the global class struggle. The class struggle in any country is, in part, separate from the rest of the world and has its own features. But it is no less true that regardless of differences, the struggles are also interdependent. If this was true at the time of the Comintern’s founding, then it is immeasurably more true today based on historical development.

Imperialist globalization fueled by new technology has to a large degree turned the notion of an economically independent nation state into an anachronism. Imperialism recognizes no borders.  Neither should the working class.

The global class struggle

The next quarter of a century after 1919 encompassed the collapse of the world capitalist economy, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism and the second imperialist world war.  At the end of that period, the world situation and the state of the global class struggle had changed. On the plus side, the Soviet Union had survived and helped to liberate major parts of Europe from imperialist domination.

The victory of the great Chinese Revolution changed the world landscape in favor of the national liberation movements. On the other hand, the working-class movement in the imperialist centers emerged politically and ideologically weaker. The victory of fascism in Europe was a crushing defeat for the working class. Although sections of the U.S. working class had fought for and won historic concessions from the ruling class under the Roosevelt administration, it is often forgotten that the U.S. ruling class was forced to make these concessions in order to prevent a Soviet-type revolution at home — and to shore up the loyalty of the masses for the war that resulted in U.S. imperialism’s domination of the capitalist world for 75 years.

That U.S. imperialism is now losing that domination is a factor that is integral to the terminal crisis of capitalism and the associated economic and political upheaval underway.

The leadership of the Soviet Union, which was in a nominal and short-lived wartime alliance with U.S. imperialism — influenced by the false illusion of peaceful coexistence with imperialism — dissolved the Comintern in 1943. Some elements in the working-class movement tried to organize a Fourth International, but, among other things, they never garnered the influence to transcend symbolism.

At this time when rallying worldwide defense for the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela against a U.S.-backed attempted coup and counterrevolution is critical, it is a good time to recall that 10 years ago, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez sponsored a large meeting of socialist and communist forces in Caracas to propose the formation of a Fifth Socialist International. The political differences among the delegates to that meeting were such that the project was not viable. This much is clear: Chávez understood that a new international could play a role in defending Venezuela against imperialism.

Ho Chi Minh with delegates and their families at the 5th Congress of the Communist International

Building a revolutionary movement

At the height of its strength, the Comintern — with all its weaknesses and contradictions — had considerable influence in determining the course of the global class struggle for socialism and communism. It would take far more time than we have here to go over the political turns and struggles within the communist movement which played a part in how things turned out.

The political and ideological struggle in the communist movement back then does not lend itself to either simple explanations or labels with respect to the different political forces or leaders in the movement. For a certain generation of veterans of the struggle, merely invoking the names of Stalin or Trotsky will prompt a strong response based on the deep divisions that existed.  

In our party, we have always tried to objectively assess that period because only in this way can revolutionaries discern lessons from the events. We believe that the weaknesses in the working-class movement that are still part of the legacy of that period — weaknesses that endure today — are key to understanding why the Soviet Union collapsed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Sam Marcy, the late chairperson and principal founder of Workers World Party, called on the most militant organizations and forces in the communist movement to put aside past differences and unite around some of the principal tenets of Leninism, such as adherence to revolution over reform, unflinching opposition to imperialism, the vanguard role of the party and a revolutionary position on the national question, etc. Marcy’s advice was that while there may be value in dwelling on the past, the urgent need now is to rebuild the revolutionary movement.

In order to do that, revolutionaries had to be oriented toward the future — and to be free of anything from the past that would make it difficult to do what had to be done in the interests of the working class.  The time will come — and the sooner the better — when revolutionaries will once again rise to the challenge of constituting an international alliance for the purpose of organizing world revolution.

Lenin’s thinking and the world now

In preparation for the next phase of the global class struggle, it’s helpful to use the anniversary of the Comintern to study Lenin’s thinking and consider how it would be applied to the present world situation. From an honest historical perspective, the time is ripe for the world struggle for socialism to take a leap forward by returning to the bold, revolutionary vision of Leninism as it was understood at the launching of the Third Communist International.

Why is this necessary? Because it’s the only path to realizing the revolutionary potential that may be closer than many of us think.

After the second imperialist war, the working-class movement, especially in the West, including the labor unions and the workers’ parties, changed their orientation. The prevailing view was that capitalism and imperialism had emerged stronger from the war — and as a consequence, the working class would have to get used to an extended future rule of the super-rich. The capitalists were able to perfect the illusion that their system was best and that it promised relative stability and advancement for everyone. Indeed, for sections of the working class the illusions and promises seemed real for a period of time.

The goals of revolution and internationalism seemed too lofty.  The working-class movement tended to be more conservative, narrow, limited and local in its thinking and direction — and tied to the capitalist ruling class. None of what we are discussing is in any way meant to denigrate or dismiss the many heroic struggles of the working class over the better part of the past century. But in order to understand what we must do, it’s necessary to be candid about the setbacks and weaknesses.

One example of the narrowness of the organized labor movement can be seen in the recent developments in France. The millions of Yellow Vest protesters, most of them from the working class, have rocked the French government and bourgeoisie.  To some extent, they were compelled to rise up because they didn’t feel the French labor movement was going to fight for them.

Under pressure from below and for the sake of its survival, the organized labor movement the world over is slowly beginning to change. However, the pace of the changes must speed up — and their political direction must be toward greater militancy, inclusiveness, anti-capitalism and internationalism. The initiative to revolutionize the labor movement will not come from the top but from below. This is one of the lessons of the education workers’ revolt.

The final struggle to end a dying capitalist system

The global capitalist economy is slowing down. Claims by some that the U.S. economy is somehow immune from the downward direction of the world economy are being punctured by reality every day. Until a few months ago, capitalist bankers and politicians — especially in the U.S. — were able to deny, ignore or conceal the magnitude of the economic crisis. They can no longer do that.

The inevitability of another worldwide financial market crash looms over Wall Street and the whole system of finance capital. The global slowdown is not really a recession, although it will be called that. Traditionally, a recession is a cyclical phenomenon followed by a recovery and then an expansion of economic activity. What is under way reflects a crisis that is far more serious than a cyclical event. The economic storm that is gathering is the product of a permanent systemic crisis, one that is irreversible and foretells the dying of capitalism.

Actually, the 2008 “near-death” crash of the capitalist financial system was never fixed. Central banks, led by the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank, desperately flooded the markets with trillions of dollars in free money, effectively putting the financial system on life support.  Trump gave the U.S. markets another boost with huge tax breaks. But now central bankers are no longer able to sustain the support system for finance capital. How critical is this?

Finance capital has long since replaced industry as the dominant driver of the economy. That reality is a defining feature of a dying system. Of course, the capitalist system has also used its tried-and-true methods for dealing with these crises, such as imposing low wages and austerity, squeezing as much out of the working class as they can in order to support high-profit levels for the super-rich.  

As significant as trade wars, Brexit, interest rate gyrations in the financial markets or the bursting of any of the enormous debt bubbles that finance capital has inflated, they are symptoms of the crisis — and catalysts for the crises to explode. The fundamental cause of the crisis is a state of permanent capitalist overproduction. By permanent, we mean that overproduction now exists on a scale never experienced in the history of capitalist development. Capitalism has been incompatible with society in many ways for most of its history. However, it has never been more incompatible with society than now.

The phenomenal growth of the productive forces in the capitalist economy, fueled by new technology, has essentially made capitalist overproduction — and a myriad of associated problems for the system like falling profits — much greater and much more resistant to capitalist remedies.

For the capitalists, as well as the workers and oppressed peoples of the world, there will be no more periods of normalcy, predictability and stability. Until capitalism is ended and replaced with socialism, the only certainty will be a deterioration of living conditions for most of us, punctuated by increasingly violent economic, political and social shocks.

Add to these convulsions the prospect of even bigger, more destructive wars and the existential threat to the ecology of the Earth. Time is running out for the race to save the planet; the ecological threat is inextricably linked to capitalism.

Even though a terminally ill capitalist system will continue to ravage, paralyze and threaten our very existence, it will not completely die on its own. Capitalism will try to regenerate itself on whatever basis and at whatever cost it takes — if the workers and the oppressed of the world fail to deposit the system into its grave.  We have no other choice as a movement but to radically rethink and shorten the time frame for ending capitalism.

The coming revolt of the working class – The revolt has already begun!

There is evidence of a marked upsurge of the working class, which includes major strikes on every continent. In the U.S., education workers, who opened up a new militant wave in West Virginia a year ago, are still in motion in West Virginia, Colorado, California and elsewhere.

There is no contradiction between the day-to-day struggle of the working class and the maximum program of socialist revolution. There is a tendency in the movement to view the struggle for higher wages, better working conditions and other basic labor demands as being at odds with the goal of preparing for revolution. Such is not the case.

Large sections of the working class will always respond first to the struggle for immediate demands. At the same time, the most radicalized sections of the working class — a section that is bound to grow as the crisis deepens — is not only ready to embrace a revolutionary program, they will insist on it. If our movement is not prepared to meet the expectations of the more radicalized sections of our class, we will lose influence with them.  That would be a tragic mistake.

Revolutionaries must have a practical, short-term strategy for the working class. But they must also have a larger view of the global class struggle and the crisis of the system. This does not mean being driven out of frustration and impatience to embrace ultra-left fantasies that can only produce failures and confusion. But it does mean envisioning the future, instead of being tied to the past.

We cannot base ourselves on any predictions that the workers’ revolt will develop rapidly, as this is unknowable. On the other hand, we must not be overly influenced by the experiences of older generations who have survived long periods of setbacks and defeats, and may therefore be of the opinion that no serious revolutionary development among the workers is possible in the near future.

The conditions that will govern the development of the future global class struggle will be in part similar to, but also wholly distinct from, those in all previous periods. Why? Because the level of the productive forces of capitalism is constantly changing. This is a fact that constantly changes or impacts the working class and everything else that governs the course of the class struggle.

A specter is haunting the capitalist ruling class

That specter is the worldwide revolt by youth. The capitalists are deeply demoralized. It is painfully apparent to them that they have lost the youth. The overwhelming majority of youth have turned against capitalism and more and more are rebelling against it. Socialism — whatever that might mean to people — has never been more popular.

Trump said in a recent speech, “This country will never be socialist.” It seems as though he has decided that running against socialism will be a major re-election theme. He may also be revealing a deep-seated fear that is widely felt among the rich. A global rebellion is underway against the super-rich. It is not going to go away.  Indeed, it is really just getting started.

Young workers, many of whom once thought that capitalist society would provide a comfortable existence for them, provided they received the increasingly unaffordable requisite level of higher education, are redefining the working-class struggle. Young people have found that higher education is no protection against the ever more precarious conditions of work and life in the epoch of a dying capitalist system. The lesson they are learning is not the lesson that the rich hoped they would learn: They are learning to hate capitalism.

It is true that some of the youth bring into the struggle naive and petty-bourgeois radical ideas, ideas that are at odds with Marxism, the class struggle and the role of the working class. As more youth have come into our party, we have encountered these ideas and have had to struggle against them. We don’t fault the youth for having wrong ideas.

We view this as an entirely predictable, and reversible consequence of the weaknesses of the working-class movement. We can lecture youth about this until we are blue in the face.  But until there is a working-class movement that is able to demonstrate that it is independent of the capitalist political system and its political parties — and that it embraces all the oppressed — then the ideas and leadership of other class forces will hold some sway with those who are being radicalized by the crises of the system.

Instead of fearing the ideas of young militants, we should work harder to win them over. Doing that will require us to own up to the reality that the political degeneration of the working-class movement over a long period of time is a factor in this problem. All too often, our movement appears to youth to be afraid to change, or that it’s stuck in the past, or more closed than open — and that it’s conservative, sectarian, cynical, didactic and ineffectual. It should come as no surprise that some might conclude that any ideas are superior to those that seem so unappealing. The more revolutionary our movement is, the more we will win the confidence of the youth and wider sections of the working class.

A return to true Leninism

A return to true Leninism will help to win the confidence of the most oppressed sections of the working class.  When Lenin presented his proposal regarding the national and colonial questions to the Second Congress of the Comintern in 1920, he understood that if the movement did not embrace the national liberation movements and the struggle of the oppressed for self-determination, the objective of a strong workers’ international would be impossible. This is why the slogan “Workers of the World Unite” was changed to “Workers and Oppressed of the World Unite.”  

Lenin’s position on the national question was not a departure from a class orientation.  On the contrary, it was asserted to objectively strengthen the class orientation. Many in the movement still don’t understand this. As a result, their positions on the national question have weakened, sometimes to the point of completely dismissing the national question.

Also, some in our movement mistakenly see the struggle against gender oppression as a departure from the class struggle. In our view, this reflects another example of a narrow, erroneous understanding of the class struggle — and a position that is influenced by patriarchal prejudice. Hopefully, there will be a reassessment of these questions in our movement so that all of us will finally be in sync with the lyrics of the International: “No more tradition’s chains shall bind us.”

How to fight the danger of fascism?

Trying to accurately label Trump politically or predict what he’s going to do is less helpful than understanding that his erratic behavior and undisguised racism, misogyny and bombastic demagogy are true reflections of the panic, chaos and political breakdown inside the U.S. ruling class. Trump is the U.S. ruling class unmasked in the face of a life-and-death crisis. He is proof that pretending to be civil, or upholding laws, or trying to maintain international alliances has not helped to extricate U.S. imperialism from its steady decline.

Beyond this, Trump exemplifies the lengths that the ruling class will go to in order to maintain the political loyalty of sections of the working class at a time when economic stability — and thus political stability — is cracking up. Trump’s obsession with building the wall and his war against immigrant workers — beyond appealing to the racism of his base — is also a desperate call to build walls between sections of the world’s working class in order to thwart global class consciousness. It is in effect a declaration of war against the prospect of proletarian internationalism. The time has come for revolutionary and genuinely progressive forces to declare — and make part of their mass appeals — that the workers’ struggle has no borders.

The Trump phenomenon is also a warning. If the unfolding of an uncontrollable crisis has the capitalist ruling class fearful about its very survival, sections of the ruling class are prepared to turn to fascism and war as a solution. History has shown that relying on other sections of the ruling class — which in the U.S. means turning to the Democratic Party — to “save democracy” is only likely to confuse and disarm the working class.  The best — and actually the only real way of fighting the danger of fascism — is the radical, widespread upsurge of the working class for the purpose of waging the class struggle until revolution.

What is the role of the working class in the ‘belly of the beast’?

A hundred years ago, the thinking among communists everywhere was that in one way or another, the working-class forces at the centers of imperialism — and most especially in the U.S.– would play a decisive role in determining the fate of capitalism.

Sam Marcy predicted almost 70 years ago, in the early post-World War II years, that the revolutionary impetus in the East that propelled the Chinese Revolution and the heroic resistance of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would in due time come to the U.S. Che Guevara’s view was that there would have to be a series of revolutions at the extremities of the imperialist empire before the masses at the heart of imperialism rose up to finish the job. The world has changed in unimaginable ways since these predictions were made. What has not changed is the dire need to end the rule of capitalism.

We will not argue over the validity of prior predictions. We will instead affirm in no uncertain terms — and with resolute confidence — that the workers and oppressed peoples located in the belly of the beast have a special responsibility to the rest of the world to slay the beast. Whatever we must do tomorrow, it is not too early to commence preparations for the end game now!

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