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Issue #1856      February 13, 2019

A brief history of the world communist movement

Part 1

Scientific socialism as we know it today developed out of the early 19th century critique, by Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and their comrades, and followers of what they called utopian socialism.

The term “utopian” refers to the book Utopia, published in the year 1516 by the 16th Century English philosopher and statesman Sir Thomas More.

The utopian socialists expressed beautiful ideas about a better world, but their plans fell short because they were not rooted in the material reality of early industrial Europe and its growing class struggle between capitalists and workers.

In the context of the expansion of industry and the industrial proletariat in Europe, Marx and Engels came on the scene.

In London, an organisation called the League of the Just (Bund der Gerechten), headed by Karl Schapper, and Heinrich Bauer, brought together radical German refugees. Meanwhile, The Communist Corresponding Society had been set up in Brussels, Belgium, by another group of exiles from Germany, including Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. As the two groups had very similar goals, namely of uniting the working class movement in all of Europe around a program of struggle, they merged in 1847 to form the Communist League (Bund der Kommunisten), based in London. Marx and Engels were assigned the job of drawing up a document stating the principles of the new organisation.

The result was the Communist Manifesto, considered by millions to be the founding document, not only of communism, but of scientific socialism in general. The Manifesto lays out the dialectical and historical materialist approach to understanding the march of history, and analyses the way capitalist society is both based on class domination, and undermined by the rise of the proletariat. It ends with the stirring words “You have nothing to lose but your chains, and you have a world to gain! Workers of all nations, unite!” This clearly sets out the idea principle later called “proletarian internationalism” (or working-class internationalism) which is still central to the communist movement today.

Revolutions of 1848 and temporary setbacks

No sooner had the Communist League been founded and the Manifesto published than all hell broke loose in Europe, in the form of the Revolutions of 1848. These were rebellions in Prussia, Austria, Hungary, Italy, France and the smaller German states against the authoritarian social order that had been imposed by the winners of the wars against Napoleonic France. They had in common that both the bourgeoisie and the expanding industrial proletariat were in the front lines of the struggle, in an alliance against the absolute monarchies (the kings of France and Prussia, the Emperor of Austria, rulers of the smaller German states, the Pope and others). The demands were for the expansion of democracy and the freedom of the people, but not, explicitly, socialism.

Nevertheless Marx, Engels and the other socialists and communists of that time supported these revolutions actively, Engels going so far as to buckle on a sword and head for the actual battle front (hence, and also because of his interest on writing on military matters, his nickname as “General”). But the revolutions were defeated in every country, and even more European exiles poured into Britain, the one country where the people had not risen in armed rebellion.

The Communist League did not survive long beyond the defeat of the European revolutions. A Prussian government spy got hold of the Communist League’s membership list, and several members of the League were arrested and put on trial for their role in the Revolutions of 1848, as a period of repression and reaction set in. One conclusion that Marx and Engels drew from the defeat was that even in the struggle against the remnants of the old feudal order, the bourgeoisie is a weak reed for the working class to lean on, and the creation of entirely working class political formations and politics is therefore essential.

Meanwhile, Marx and Engels worked on honing their economic and political analysis, adapting Hegel’s idealistic “dialectical” method of analysis to apply to the analysis of material phenomenon – hence another synonym for Marxism, “the materialist dialectic” later called “dialectical materialism”.

The First International and the Paris Commune

The working-class movement in Europe was down but not out, and recuperated from the defeats of 1848-1849. By 1864, the project of creating an organisation to bring together the workers’ movement Europe-wide and beyond led to the creation of the International Workingmen’s Association, often called the “First International”. Again, Marx and Engels played a leading, but not undisputed role.

From the beginning, there were strong internal tensions in the International Working Men’s Association. It included not only the strong core of followers of Marx and Engels, but also trade unionists who wanted to concentrate on labor struggles only and not political ones, and anarchists from the less industrialised parts of Europe.

But the international nature of the movement prospered, spreading to many areas in the United States as well as Europe. This was the beginning of Marxian socialism and communism in our own country.

The anarchist tendency in the Association was led by the Russian Mikhail Alexandrovich Bakunin (1814-1876). Bakunin, like Marx and Engels, was a former admirer of the conservative German Philosopher George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831), Bakunin disagreed with Marxism on key points. Rather than the creation of a transitional socialist state, Bakunin called for a stateless society of cooperative groups. That stance, and Bakunin’s propensity for factional intrigues, eventually led to conflict between him and the Marxists.

But as all this ferment was going on in the International Workingman’s Association, war broke out in Europe. The ambitious Emperor Napoleon III of France allowed himself to be goaded into a war with the German states led by their military powerhouse, Prussia, and was soundly defeated, captured and forced out of power. As the Prussian troops marched toward Paris, the citizens of the capital, with the participation of their militia, the National Guard, took over power in the city and instituted a radical regime called the Paris Commune.

A right-wing republican regime, established in nearby Versailles, moved, with Prussian acquiescence, to overcome and crush the Commune.

A number of members of the International Working Men’s Association, including close friends of Marx and Engels, participated in the governance and military defence of the Commune. It implemented a number of radical measures which were very advanced for the time: For example, workers whose employers had abandoned their businesses could take control of the concerns and run them for their own benefit, separation of church and state, abolition of interest on debts, and radical democratisation of governance of the city. These things horrified the French and European bourgeoisie, and on May 21, 1871 the regular army entered Paris.

By the end of that month, the Commune was crushed, and the restored bourgeois government carried out sickeningly bloody reprisals, with thousands of men, women and children executed without trial. Others were given long prison terms, while thousands more went into exile.

In a pamphlet called “The Civil War in France”, which Marx wrote to sum up, for the International Workingmen’s Association, the lessons he drew from the Commune, he included this important passage: “One thing especially was proved by the Paris Commune, viz. the working class cannot simply lay hold of ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes”.

In other words, after the working class overthrows the power of the capitalist class, new worker-controlled state machinery must be created from the start. This subsequently became an important difference between the respective attitudes of communists on the one hand, and “moderate” socialists, or, as we now say, social democrats on the other.

The End of the First International, on to the Second

The disagreements between Marxist socialists and Bakuninist anarchists continued to destabilise the International Workingmen’s Association. Finally, in 1872, the Hague (Netherlands) Congress of the International Working Men’s Association voted to move the organisation’s headquarters away from London and to New York, isolating it from European disputes and effectively killing it.

Labour and socialist organising now continued everywhere in the world, where both Marxist and anarchist ideas had spread. For a while, there was not an international coordinating structure, however. Marx and Engels turned their attention once again to developing their theoretical work and writings. The first volume of Marx’s most famous work, Capital (Das Kapital) had already been published in German in 1867, and further volumes were projected. (However, Volumes II and III had to be finished by Engels after Marx’s death in March of 1883).

By the mid 1870s, socialist groups had been maturing in many countries. In Germany, there was a sharp rivalry between the followers of Marx and Engels, on the one hand, and those of another German socialist pioneer, Ferdinand LaSalle (1825 - 1864) on the other (LaSalle had been killed in a duel in 1864, but his followers continued to have a major influence in German socialism). In 1875, Lassalians, Marxists and others came together in the city of Gotha in Lower Saxony to try to unite to found a new socialist party.

The new party, which was ancestral to today’s SPD, or German Social Democratic Party (Sosialdemocratisches Partei Deutschlands) included in its program a mishmash of ideas which met with Marx’s strong disapproval. In particular, Marx frowned on the failure of the “Gotha Program” to reflect the international nature of the working-class struggle, and was highly suspicious of its attitude toward the bourgeois state.

The flaws that Marx identified in the Gotha program were an early sign of the schism that would break the communist movement away from the social democratic, or “moderate” socialist one.

Meanwhile anarchist organising, and its variant, anarcho-sindicalism, continued alongside socialist organising. Though there was often conflict between the two orientations, there was sometimes cooperation also, and the two tendencies often overlapped and “interpenetrated”. One such situation happened in Chicago in 1886. In the context of the huge “Eight Hour Day” movement, workers were striking the McCormick Harvesting Machine factory on the Southwest side of the city. Private factory guards fired on the strikers on May 3, and several were killed. The next day, there was a mass protest at Chicago’s Haymarket Square, organised by the socialist and anarcho-sindicalist leaders of the movement.

A bomb was thrown, very likely by an agent-provocateur, as a group of policemen were moving to break up the peaceful rally. Several police were killed, and also some workers in the shooting which followed. The government put eight leaders of the Eight Hour Day movement in jail, and after a joke of a trial, hanged four of them (one had committed suicide in jail).

Already there has been a growing opinion that a new international socialist organisation needed to be established to replace the long-vanished First International. The Chicago Haymarket incident and other sharp labour struggles heightened the urgency. On July 14, 1886, after a small preliminary action in 1881, the Second International was founded without much of an anarchist presence. A lasting legacy was the designation of May 1 as International Workers’ Day, in commemoration of the Haymarket Martyrs.

Achievements of the Second International

In spite of the diverse nature of the parties and leaders involved in the Second International, it achieved important advances for the workers’ movement and the cause of socialism. In the first place, it spread the basic message of Marxism far more widely than had ever been possible before. Affiliate parties of the Second International represented every continent except for Antarctica.

At the first formal Congress of the Second International, on July 14 (Bastille Day) in 1889, parties from two dozen countries were represented. By the beginning of the First World War, many millions of workers belonged to the Second International parties.

In Germany and other places where Second International parties were strong, they accomplished many things that were beneficial to the working class. They had mounting electoral successes, and got legislation passed that protected labour rights. They were heavily engaged in union organising alongside their socialist educational and legislative work. They advanced social welfare programs such as health insurance and retirement benefits, and were strongly represented in the struggle for women’s rights.

For these reasons, at their height, the Second International Parties scared the world ruling class as much as the communist parties did later on.

In spite of Marx’s misgivings expressed in his critique of the Gotha Program, the idea of international working-class solidarity continued to be a major theme of Second International socialism. And there were sharp criticisms of colonialism and imperialism from important Second International leaders. For example, the German Social Democratic parliamentarian and leader August Bebel played an important role in exposing and denouncing the genocidal actions of the German government and military in the repression and near extermination of the Herrero and Nama nations in German Southwest Africa (today’s Namibia).

The First World War and the Second International

The incoherencies in the Gotha Program, already noted by Marx, began to manifest themselves, in one form or another, in the world socialist movement.

Eduard Bernstein (1850-1932), an important figure in German socialism, had been an associate of Marx and Engels but began to distance himself from their basic outlook on issues of the state and the transition toward socialism. He believed that capital was not becoming more concentrated, thought that capitalism would be transformed into socialism by legislative reforms, and jumped on the German nationalist bandwagon, adopting support for colonialism as a mechanism to help “backward” peoples to advance.

Denying the inevitability of systemic crises in capitalism in the future, he promoted “economism”, i.e. the stressing of ameliorating the economic conditions of the working class without attempting to challenge bourgeois control of the state.

Bernstein was sharply criticised by more left-wing members of his own party, who accused him of opportunism. In her pamphlet Reform or Revolution? another member of the German Social Democratic Party, Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919), sharply criticised Bernstein for his revisionism, opportunism and economism – precisely those things that became major currents of thought not only in Germany, but in a number of other socialist parties worldwide.

In the Social Democratic Party of Russia, a similar dispute led to the split of the majority radical faction, or Bolsheviks, from the minority reformist faction, or Mensheviks, in 1903. The principal Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Illyich Lenin (1870-1924), had, a year earlier, laid out his views on what a socialist party should be and how it should be organised in his book What is to be Done? In Lenin’s opinion, the purely economic struggle of the workers would not, by itself, lead to revolutionary change and socialism; that Marxists should be organised to introduce the element of revolutionary consciousness into the working-class struggle, and that for this purpose they should form a different kind of political party, more tightly organised, to carry on this work.

The Mensheviks, for their part, took up an “ultra-orthodox” stance on the possibility of socialist revolution in Russia, claiming that according to Marxist doctrine, such a thing would be impossible until capitalism was fully developed in the country.

Similar disputes, with variations, occurred within socialist parties all over the world, but meanwhile the development of the worldwide capitalist system, with its imperialistic competition for colonies, resources and markets, was building international tensions up to a level that a major war seemed almost certain.

The Second International held its Seventh Congress in Stuttgart, the capital of the Kingdom of Wuertemberg, Germany, in August of 1907. Even though the revolutionary versus reformist tensions were evident in the conference hall, the delegates nevertheless approved a bold resolution denouncing militarism and the march toward war, and calling for the working classes of all countries involved to mobilise to prevent war from breaking out and to fight for a speedy end to hostilities should it break out anyway.

Then exactly seven years later, in August of 1914, the First World War did indeed break out, between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire) against the Triple Entente (France, the UK and Tsarist Russia), with other countries later diving into the mayhem. But the leaders of many of the social democratic parties, and many of their representatives in parliament, failed utterly to keep their promises to prevent war and to stop it once it broke out. Important figures of the world socialist movement, such as Plekhanov in Russia, abandoned the position decided on at Stuttgart and enthusiastically came out in support of their own governments.

There were exceptions: In the United States, Eugene V Debs (1855-1926), a major leader of the Socialist Party of America, managed to keep his party from supporting US entry in the war, and in fact received a stiff jail sentence for his anti-war activities. A leading French socialist leader, Jean Jaures, was assassinated in July 1914 because of his attempts to stop the outbreak of the war. In Germany Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, along with others on the left of the German Social Democratic Party, also militantly opposed the war – a position which helped define the “left” in the socialist movement worldwide.

The left of the socialist movement saw this surrender to nationalism and war fever as a monstrous betrayal of the working class and humanity, and it led to a definitive break between reformist social democracy and what eventually became the world communist movement and the Third International.

The Bolshevik Revolution, the Third International

The Russian people, devastated by the impact of the First World War, overthrew the Romanov monarchy in February of 1917. A government of bourgeois liberals and moderate socialist took power. This “Provisional Government”, however, was unable to meet the demands of the working class and the masses and, moreover, wanted to continue the war with the Central Powers instead of finding a way to make peace.

The Bolsheviks, headed by Lenin and now also by Leon Trotsky (1879-1940), a former Menshevik who had moved over to the Bolshevik side, put out the slogan of “Peace, land, bread!” and denounced the war policy of the Provisional Government, along with advancing a radical socialist program that also promised to break up the big landed estates in favour of the peasants.

Large numbers of workers, poor peasants and rank and file soldiers were attracted to the Bolshevik cause by this program, and by the energetic work of the tightly organised Bolshevik cadres. On November 7, 1917, the Bolsheviks carried out a successful revolution in Russia, called the October Revolution due to a difference in the Russian calendar in use at that time. The Bolshevik government, initially in coalition with a left-wing faction of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, moved fast to implement radical measures. One of these was the publication of the secret treaties among the nations, which had set the stage for the outbreak of the war.

The Bolsheviks, recognising that Russia could not win the war, opened negotiations with the Central Powers for a peaceful exit from the conflict. But the Germans especially played a hard game and took advantage of Russia’s willingness to negotiate in order to seize large amounts of Russian territory and to set up a German-puppet government in Ukraine.

Helped by the capitalist powers, the right-wing “White Guards” mounted a multipronged effort to overthrow the Bolshevik government, leading to a bloody civil war. Some of the former Menshevik leaders took the side of the White Guards, others reconciled themselves with the Bolsheviks, and yet others went into exile, thus effectively putting an end to social democratic (in the modern sense of the term) politics in Russia.

But the central powers lost the war, and the Austro-Hungarian, German and Ottoman Turkish monarchies were overthrown by popular uprisings. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, Emperor-King Karl of Austria-Hungary and other minor German rulers went into exile. For a while, both branches of the socialist movement – the radicals and the “moderates”– were riding high. The Social Democratic Party established a government in Germany under Friedrich Ebert of the Social Democratic Party.

The army and conservatives agreed to this, in part in order to support these “reasonable” socialists in Germany’s defeat, and in part to stop the more radical socialists, who came to be called Spartacists, from overthrowing the whole capitalist order. Ebert had not even wanted an end to the Hohenzollern monarchy, and negotiated a deal with the German army whereby its privileged status in society would be preserved.

This had terrible consequences a very few years later. The Social Democratic Party government instituted various economic and democratic reforms, but the basic nature of the German state was minimally altered. To stop the Spartacists, Ebert allied with military units returning from the front to “keep order”. In late December 1918, the Spartacists and right-wing paramilitary (Freikorps) and military forces allied with Ebert’s government had armed clashes in Berlin and elsewhere in Germany. The Spartacists were crushed and two of the best-known leaders of the German left, Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, were murdered. The Spartacists, having broken off all relationships with the Social Democratic Party, became the German Communist Party.

Similar things happened elsewhere; “Bolshevik” forces briefly took over in Bavaria and also in Hungary. These “red” revolutions were also crushed, often with the connivance of social democratic parties and politicians.

The Third International and the COMINTERN

The successful revolution in Russia, the crushing of similar efforts in Hungary and elsewhere, and the disgraceful role played by “moderate” socialists in siding with reaction against the revolutionaries, led to a worldwide split in the socialist movement. In a great many countries, the left wings of existing socialist parties moved to break away from the Second International. The breakaway “lefts” began to refer to themselves as communist parties, while the term “social democrat” began to be applied to those parties that retained the politics of the Second International.

In the United States several groups claimed the “Communist” mantle. The main ones were the Communist Party of America, whose members were mostly immigrant workers and which was headed by Charles Ruthenberg, and the Communist Labor Party, headed by John Reed and Benjamin Gitlow, which included more US born workers. Eventually, the newly created COMINTERN persuaded these two groups to merge, creating the Communist Party USA (the CPUSA) which exists today.

Next week: Working-class internationalism

This essay is adapted from an oral version the author presented to the Communist Party USA’s National Party School, August 2018.

People’s World

Next article – Edging toward war with Iran?

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