Leon Trotsky
Third Congress of the Communist International

Summary of Discussion on World Economic Crisis
June 24, 1921

Source: Published in To the Masses: Proceedings of the Third Congress of the Communist International, 1921 (https://www.haymarketbooks.org/books/897-to-the-masses), pp. 159-168
Translation: John Riddell
HTML Markup: David Walters & Andy Bluden for the Marxists Internet Archive, 2018
Copyright: John Riddell, 2017. Republished here with permission

Comrades, the first speaker in the discussion, Comrade Brand, made very interesting remarks that I will not discuss in detail because I am by and large in agreement with them. I wish only to respond to his closing remarks, where – being hurried along somewhat by the chair – he expressed himself in a manner that was too concise, opening the door to possible misunderstandings. Brand said that we will combat the bourgeoisie not with statistics but with the sword, attempting to underline this assertion by the fact that I appeared here as reporter. Well, I must tell you, quite honestly, that I had a lot more to do with the Red Army’s statistics than with its sword. (Laughter) If Comrade Brand and other comrades imagine that I took part in the struggles of the Red Army, so to speak, with sword in hand, they have too romantic a conception of my functions. I had much more to do with the quantity of boots, trousers, and – with your permission – underwear (Laughter) than with the sword.

Generally speaking, I do not believe there is any contradiction between statistics and swords, given that the statistics of swords plays a great role in wars. Napoleon said, ‘Dieu est toujours avec les gros bataillons’ – ‘God is always on the side of the biggest battalions’. And statistics is also concerned, as you know, with the size of battalions. Comrade Brand will surely recall that we made somewhat of an error in statistics when we advanced too far toward Warsaw, without calculating the distances precisely and without correctly estimating the enemy’s strength and resistance. So a well-honed sword, and everything that goes with the sword, fit in well together with good statistics. (Applause)

Comrade Seemann took up a remark of Comrade Brand and repeated it in much sharper form, saying that our task is not to demonstrate the inevitability of revolution but to carry it out. That is partly correct but also in a certain sense not correct. We have to show workers that revolution is possible, necessary, and inevitable; and where the bourgeoisie is concerned, we have to carry it through by force. And in my opinion, Comrade Seemann and other comrades that share his point of view are somewhat incorrect to say that the objective analysis of economic development, shows that the revolution will inevitably take place – as I believe Comrade Sachs or Comrade Seemann put it – at some defined point in historical evolution.. That was also what we were told again and again by the Social Democrats of the Second International. That doesn’t concern us any more. We must set ourselves a goal and reach this goal through appropriate organisation, tactics, and strategy. And so, just as we cannot counterpose the sword to statistics, we also must not counterpose the subjective factors of history – the revolutionary will and revolutionary needs of the working class – to the objective conditions.

The opportunists – the Hilferdings, Kautsky and his followers – convert history into an automatic process by inscribing only the objective factor, the will of the enemy class (which for us is an objective factor) into their great ledger book of historical statistics. They almost entirely exclude the subjective factor – the dynamic revolutionary will of the working class – thus falsifying Marxism. However, there is another way, methodologically, to conceive of revolution. Specifically, there is a variety of revolutionary thought whose representatives can be closely observed here on Russian soil. These are our Social Revolutionaries, and especially their left wing. They always ridiculed objective thinking, on analysis of economic and political development, on its objective and – to use a philosophical term – immanent tendencies. To this, they – who considered themselves good Marxists – counterposed the free will and the revolutionary actions of a minority. If we detach the subjective from the objective aspect, this philosophy leads logically to pure revolutionary adventurism.

And I believe that we have learned in the great school of Marxism to unite dialectically the objective with the subjective. That is, we have learned to base our action not only on this or that expression of subjective will but also on the conviction that the working class must hew to this subjective will of ours and that the will to action of the working class is determined by the objective situation. Thus we must reach conclusions, to some degree, through economic analysis and also the use of statistics, in order to determine our path precisely, and proceed down this path energetically, wielding the sword.

Comrade Sachs said that the theses were not appropriate for the Communist International because they do not describe the decline and recovery with sufficient precision. I will merely refer you to page 9 of the theses, where this is set out quite precisely. In addition, the comrade says that the proletariat is a subjective, revolutionary factor of history and that the theses do not emphasise this subjective side sufficiently. In my view, Comrade Sachs, whose views differ from most of the speakers, has one thing in common with them: he has not read the theses. In point 34 we say, quite precisely:

The prospect of reconstructing capitalism on the foundations outlined above poses basically the following question: Will the working class be prepared to make the sacrifices...

That is surely subjective enough!

...under these new and incomparably more difficult conditions that are required to re-establish stable conditions for its own slavery, more onerous and cruel even than what existed before the War?

The passage that follows develops the concept of need for accumulation, intensified accumulation, and for stabilising the currency. And a single thought is expressed throughout. Economic equilibrium is not something abstract and mechanical; it can be restored only through the agency of classes. But the classes rest on the foundation of the economy. During the three postwar years, the bourgeoisie has managed to maintain its equilibrium. That is a fact. For now, the bourgeoisie still holds the tiller. How does it manage this? As I said earlier, by printing money. In Italy, France, and Germany, supplements to workers’ wages are paid out of the ruined government finances, in the form of reduced prices for bread and cheaper rents. Every time a German product is dumped on the British market, that means that a portion of a German house that is ruined cannot be paid for, cannot be renovated. Thus, in order to restore class equilibrium, they have to ruin the economy; in order to restore the economy, they have to disrupt class equilibrium. That is the vicious circle that grips the economy and its superstructure. That is the central concept of the theses. I request that those who do not perceive this concept in the theses read them through again attentively.

Comrade Seemann says that Soviet Russia could serve as a safety valve for capitalism and thus, possibly, hinder the development of the world revolution. Well, the situation is not yet so perilous that European or American capital will throw itself on Russia in order to seek rescue from the enormous unemployment into which it has fallen. The situation is by far not so dangerous, and our country is, unfortunately, far too shattered to be able to attract capital in such quantities that it could pose a danger to revolution in Europe and America. That is absolutely excluded.

I now come to the comments of Comrade Pogány. He found both a contradiction and a gap in the theses – on pages 4 and 14. The contradiction, in his opinion, is that we say, on the one hand, that prosperity weakened revolutionary outbursts, but we then say that an artificial prosperity will not halt the revolution but, to a certain extent, promote it. It is quite true that the past and future pseudo-prosperities are evaluated quite differently, and Pogány sees that as a contradiction. But in fact there is no contradiction here, because we assess prosperity in the specific context of the world as a whole and the individual countries. At least on this point, Comrade Pogány’s thinking is somewhat automatic and metaphysical, if I may use the old terms, because he says that a crisis always has the same result, as does prosperity. That is quite incorrect.

First of all, such an approach to the theses is quite erroneous. He says that the theses aim at two things: first, wait for the British-American war; second, wait for prosperity. As if it was I who, so to speak, inserted prosperity into our policies, as if I had opened wide the door to prosperity and said, would it please enter in and change the situation. That is not the point at all. What do the theses say? They say that we are undergoing a deep and acute crisis, which has led to a major attack on the proletariat by the capitalist class. The proletariat finds itself everywhere on the defensive, carrying out a defensive struggle on economic issues. Our duty in this regard is to generalise this struggle, to deepen it, to clarify the conditions of struggle through our analysis, to shape it politically, and to broaden it into a struggle for political power. That is our indisputable task.

In addition, I said in my report and also – together with Comrade Varga – in our theses that it is quite possible that a recovery will begin in the next two or three months or half year, provided, of course, that the revolution does not break out in the meantime. If it breaks out, we will join Comrade Pogány in not resisting this development but in taking part in it with all our strength. But, Comrade Pogány, we are addressing the question of what will happen if that does not occur – if what arrives is not a revolution but a recovery? Comrade Varga identified a number of symptoms of such a recovery in his pamphlet. And even if we cannot yet talk of recovery, nonetheless, we must recognise that the pace of decline has slowed down. There’s no disputing that. Prices are not falling as precipitously as before. The financial markets are under less strain, and there are indications here and there of quite small, superficial improvements in production. These remain quite insignificant, and it is quite possible that what we observe here is merely a small zigzag, following which things will go down again. But it is also possible that a greater improvement will begin. That does not depend on me, on Comrade Pogány, or on the resolutions of this congress. It is truly something external, independent of our will.

Does this really signify, in terms of policy, the onset of a period of renewed economic development? Not in the slightest. According to Comrade Pogány, if the British markets, exports, and production revive in three months’ time, we must abandon hope that the revolution will develop immediately, that political power can be won. We do not believe that to be the case. There is a great difference between prosperity right after the War and the prosperity that is now approaching. After the War, the working class had many illusions. It was disorganised, as was the bourgeoisie as well. All the classes were disorganised. Within the bourgeoisie, only a small minority was aware of its goal, and the same was true in the working class: only a small minority, the Communist group, was aware of its goal. The broad masses were vacillating, and in such a situation, it was crucially important whether the workers returning from the War were jobless or whether they immediately received a reasonably respectable wage, whether their bread was cheap or expensive, because they weighed all these circumstances against their exertions and sacrifices on the battlefield.

Meanwhile, the bourgeoisie made great financial sacrifices and at the cost of further ruination of the basic economic situation created circumstances that stabilised, for two years, the confused moods of the broad masses. Of course, entire layers of workers broke away, again and again, but still the government was able to hold on up to the present. Today, however, unemployment has caused deep impoverishment among the masses. The Communist Party has taken shape, disillusionment and disappointment among the masses have grown enormously, and we are now struggling in the framework of this crisis and will continue to do so. It is by no means excluded that in the course of these struggles and this crisis we will succeed in achieving power in one or another country. Should this struggle, however, not lead to a successful outcome, to victory, then – as the theses say – a pseudo-prosperity will by no means have a pacifying effect on the workers. Quite the contrary. At the first sign of prosperity, every worker will recall all the disappointments he has suffered, all the sacrifices he has made, and will demand compensation for everything – including the wage reductions and the crisis. There are historical, economic, and psychological reasons for this. As for the melody that Comrade Pogány heard in my speech, to the effect that I am waiting for a new war and prosperity, I do not know whether my voice is not musical enough, or Comrade Pogány’s ear is insufficiently musical, or perhaps the acoustics here are poor. (Laughter) In any case, between my organ of speech and Comrade Pogány’s organ of hearing there is a misunderstanding. I am not telling anyone to wait for a war between Britain and America.

Had I known that the date 1924 would lead anyone into temptation, I would have abstained from mentioning the accursed date. It plays no role in my analysis; I mentioned it only by way of illustration. Addressing the issue of economic equilibrium, I asked: what is the state of equilibrium in the international relations among states? And I said that, just as we had an armed peace before 1914, preparations are now under way for war. But no one was thinking of such a rapid tempo; no one was banking on the certainty of an unavoidable clash within two, three, or four years. And this inevitable conflict is not a mathematical point in historical development; it influences the present groupings of states in Europe.

Comrade Thalheimer repeated the same charge that I wished, if you will, to hold in reserve the proletariat’s revolutionary energy until war should break out in 1924. This sounds a bit peculiar. Then he said that my viewpoint implies capitalism will disintegrate along a peaceful path. He plainly stated that the theses are oriented to a peaceful collapse of capitalism. I direct your attention to point 34, which says the exact opposite. It says, with regard to the automatic disintegration of capitalism, that if an equilibrium is re-established, this would take place through the class struggle, and for that very reason equilibrium cannot be restored. That’s what it says.

The question of reparations also came up in this regard. It was said that Germany’s reparations serve as a means to stabilise capitalism in the Entente countries. Quite correct – except that the reparations must actually be paid. In order for them to be paid, the German proletariat must produce not only for itself, for the profits of its bourgeoisie, and for its state, but also for these reparations. That means intensified exploitation, which means a sharpening of the class struggle – and by no means the establishment of an equilibrium.

Many comrades ask in a quite abstract fashion whether it is impoverishment or prosperity that leads to revolution. Posed in this way, the question is quite wrong, as I have tried to demonstrate in my report. A Spanish comrade told me privately that it was the prosperity of Spanish industry brought about by the War that produced a revolutionary movement on a grand scale, since earlier there had been stagnation in Spain. So, not a Russian example but a Spanish one, at the opposite end of Europe. Comrades, what leads to revolution is neither impoverishment nor prosperity in itself, but the alternation between prosperity and impoverishment and crisis. It is instability, the lack of constancy that drives revolution forward.

What is it that has made the bureaucracy in the workers’ movement so conservative? After all, these are mostly modest folk, who do not enjoy any great luxury but are accustomed to stability in their lives. They need not fear unemployment, so long as they stick within the framework of normal party and union life. That has an impact on the psychology of a broad layer of the better-off workers and these bureaucrats. But now the glories of these stable conditions belong to the past. Price levels leap up and double, and wages shift in pace – or not in pace – with the value of the currency. So there are the leaps in the value of currency and in wages, and then the alternation of a feverish pseudo-expansion with deep crises. This absence of stability, of any security in the private existence of a worker, is the revolutionary factor in the period we are now going through. And that is also said very precisely in the theses, which refer to both crisis and prosperity. On page 13 we say:

The instability of living conditions, reflecting the general instability of national and world economic conditions, is now one of the most important factors in revolutionary development.

And that is just as important for times of crisis as for times of prosperity. It influences the political conditions in which the working class lives. Before the War, the working class had become accustomed to Prussian government. True enough, it was a rigid framework, but a secure one. You knew what you could do and what you could not do. Now this framework of Prussian stability has disappeared. Before the War, you received only three marks a day, but these coins had a clear ring; you could buy something with them. Now you receive (I don’t know exactly) twenty, thirty, forty, or fifty marks a day, but they buy very little.[1] Yes, previously there was the German Kaiser to deal with, but you knew that you would not be killed on the street. If you went on strike, in the worst case you would be jailed. Today, however, when you walk down the street as a free citizen of the republic, you don’t know – you might get shot. This absence of security shakes the most imperturbable worker out of equilibrium. That is the driving force for revolution.

What has been said here about me and the theses focusing on the conflict between Britain and the United States and disregarding other conflicts is completely wrong. What Koenen says about the relationship between Germany and France is quite fully discussed there. Even the latest capitulation and everything connected with it is discussed on page 10. There it is stated:

Nonetheless, German’s surrender in May on the reparations question represents a temporary victory for Britain, assuring the further economic decline of Central Europe without, however, excluding France’s occupation of the Ruhr region in the immediate future.

Everything said by Comrade Koenen has been stated in principle in the theses. Obviously, we cannot concentrate our attention on international politics only on the year 1924. We must be alert to every possible eventuality, studying each day’s events, and preparing energetically. In my opinion, it is precisely the international issues that offer the best prospects for winning the proletariat, which is our key concern. Before we achieve power, we must win the proletariat.

What is the position of the Second International and the Two-and-a-Half International on these issues? Let me call your attention to a small example: a polemic between Vorwärts and the Belgian newspaper Le Peuple. I don’t know whether this controversy has been sufficiently publicised in Germany. This polemic between two official publications of parties that belong to the same Second International, concerning the most immediate and crucial question, that of German reparations, is highly instructive for every German, Belgian, and French worker. At the moment when Briand was threatening to occupy the Ruhr region, Le Peuple, this scandalous Belgian Socialist paper, asked the German comrades the following questions:

We saw how bravely the German workers conducted themselves during the Kapp events. Why are they silent now? Why do not worker organisations from one end of Germany to the other give unmistakable expression today to their desire to avoid an occupation of the Ruhr region, bringing with it labour under military supervision?

This means: My Belgian government, along with the French regime, is going to strangle you German workers, if your government does not pay reparations in the amount demanded. It is therefore your duty as German workers to carry out a revolution against your bourgeoisie and compel them to pay reparations, so my government will not be compelled to strangle you. (Laughter) That amounts to playing around with revolutionary duty like clowns at a circus. Your duty is to subjugate your bourgeoisie to mine, so that I will not be obliged to fight against your bourgeoisie. (Applause)

In response to this, Vorwärts wrote:

We send every one of these questions back to the Belgian workers’ organisations. After all, it is not our armies that must be kept from advancing.

That is said by the same Vorwärts, the same Social Democratic leadership, that earlier supported the Peace of Brest-Litovsk.[2] One can talk of these people before the Belgian, French, and German working class only with horsewhip in hand.

Comrades, the revolution flows along three channels, and Comrade Roy has reminded us of each of these channels. The first great channel of revolutionary development is the ruined Europe. The social equilibrium of Europe – of Britain above all – was always based on Britain’s and Europe’s world supremacy. This was founded on Britain’s position as the world’s dominant power. But all that is gone. There may be fluctuations, but the dominant role of Europe is finished, and with it the dominant role of the European bourgeoisie – and the European proletariat too. That is the first broad channel of the revolution.

The second channel is the feverish development of the United States, its enormous and feverish rise, created by conditions that will never become stable and will never be repeated: a massive upsurge followed inevitably by a great crisis and depression. These unprecedented ups and downs of a great nation, a great society, are a powerful factor for revolution. It is not excluded that the revolutionary development in the United States of America may now proceed at an American tempo.

The third channel is the colonies. During the War, when European countries were excluded from the world market, the colonies developed strongly in a capitalist direction. That has no great economic impact on the world market, where Indian, Chinese, and even Japanese capitalism play no decisive or significant role. But for the revolutionary development of these countries, capitalist development, and the degree of its development, is decisive. In India we now have a backward proletariat. But the potential role of such a proletariat in a land with half-feudal agricultural relationships can be seen in the entire recent history of Russia. The proletariat will play a role there that is out of all proportion to the level of capitalist development and to the number of workers. For the peasantry of India or China has no prospects, no conceivable focus of attention other than the young proletariat, ready for struggle.

The struggle in the colonies is therefore the third important channel of the revolutionary movement. These channels should not be counterposed. The movement flows in the three channels in parallel fashion, each influencing the other, and there is no predicting whether at any given time the movement will press more strongly in this or that channel. Everything is set up in such a way that objective conditions – the automatic factor in history – are working excellently for us. I hope that my comments have not restrained the subjective factor, as some comrades fear, but rather that both objective and subjective factors for revolution will work together and accomplish splendid achievements.

It was proposed that the congress refer the theses back to the commission. It is certainly necessary for the theses to be reviewed again by the commission on the basis of this discussion. However, I ask the congress to approve the theses in principle, as a foundation, before they go back to the commission. (Loud applause and cheers)




1. In June 1921, US$1.00 exchanged for 63 to 75 marks, with the mark’s value falling rapidly.

2. The Brest-Litovsk Peace Treaty between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers headed by Germany was signed on 3 March 1918. Under its terms, Soviet Russia ceded a quarter of the population of the old Russian Empire as well as nine-tenths of its coal mines.