Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

Speech Delivered at the Second World
Conference of Communist Women

COMRADES! We are now convening your Conference of Communist Women and the current Congress of the Communist International – we are now convening and carrying on our work at a moment which does not seem to have that definitiveness, that clarity and those graphic fundamental features which appeared, at first sight, as the distinguishing traits of the First World Congress when it met directly following the war. Our enemies and our opponents are even saying that we have been completely and utterly mistaken in our calculations. We Communists had supposed and hoped, so say our opponents, that the world proletarian revolution would break out either during the war or immediately afterwards. But now the third year since the war is already ending, and while during this interval many revolutionary movements have taken place, it is only within one country, namely, in our own economically, politically and culturally backward Russia, that the revolutionary movement has led to the dictatorship of the proletariat – a dictatorship which has been able to maintain itself to the present day and which I hope will continue to maintain itself for a long time to come. In other countries the revolutionary movements have led only to the replacement of the Hohenzollern and Habsburg regimes by bourgeois regimes, in the form of bourgeois republics. Finally, in a whole number of countries the movement ebbed away in strikes, demonstrations and isolated uprisings which were crushed. In general, the mainstays of the capitalist regime have been preserved throughout the whole world, with the sole exception of Russia.

From this our enemies have drawn the conclusion that since capitalism hasn’t collapsed as a result of the World War in the course of the first two to three postwar years when the balance sheets were being drawn, it follows that the world proletariat has demonstrated its incapacity, while, conversely, world capitalism has demonstrated its capacity and power to retain its positions, to reestablish its equilibrium.

And at this very moment the International is discussing the question: Will the period immediately ahead, the next few years, entail the reestablishment of capitalist rule on new and higher foundations? or will it entail a mounting assault by the proletariat upon capitalism, an assault which will bring about the dictatorship of the working class? This is the fundamental question for the world proletariat and, consequently, also for its women’s section. Of course, Comrades, I can’t even attempt here to give a complete answer to this question. The time at my disposal is too brief. I shall attempt to do this, as assigned by the ECCI, at the Congress. But one thing, I believe, is completely clear to us, to Communists, to Marxists. We know that history and its movement are determined by objective causes but we also know that history is accomplished by human beings and through huthan beings. The revolution is accomplished through the working class. Essentially history thus poses the question before us in the following way: Capitalism prepared the World War; the World War erupted and destroyed millions of lives and billions of dollars’ worth of national wealth. It has shaken everything. And here on this half-ruined foundation, two basic classes are locked in struggle – the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. The bourgeoisie seeks to restore capitalist equilibrium and its class rule; the proletariat seeks to overthrow the rule of the bourgeoisie.

It is impossible to settle this matter with pencil in hand, like adding up a list of groceries. It is impossible to say: History has taken a turn toward the reestablishment of capitalism. It is only possible to say that if the lessons of the entire preceding development – the lessons of the war, the lessons of the Russian Revolution, the lessons of the semi-revolutions in Germany, Austria and elsewhere – if these lessons go for nought, if the working class once again agrees to keep its neck within the capitalist yoke, then, perhaps, the bourgeoisie will be able to restore its equilibrium, by destroying the civilization of Western Europe and by transferring the center of world development to America, to Japan, to Asia. Entire generations would have to be destroyed in order to create this new equilibrium. To this end the diplomats, the military men, the strategists, the economists, the brokers of the bourgeoisie are now directing all their efforts. They know that while history has its profound causes, it is nonetheless made through human beings, through their organizations and through their parties; and, consequently, our Congress and your Women’s Conference have gathered here precisely in order to introduce into this unsettled historical situation the certainty of the consciousness and the will of the revolutionary class. This is the gist of the moment through which we are living and herein is the gist of its tasks as well.

We can say that the assumption of power no longer appears so simple a matter as it did to many of us two or three years ago. On the world scale this business of conquering power is extremely difficult and complicated. One must be aware that within the proletariat itself there are diverse layers, diverse levels of historical development and even diverse temporary interests. All this inevitably makes itself felt in its own due time. Layer after proletarian layer is drawn into the revolutionary struggle, passes through its own school, burns its fingers, retreats to the rear. They are followed by another layer, in whose wake comes still another and all of them are not drawn in simultaneously but at different periods; they pass through the kindergarten, the first, the second, and other grades of revolutionary development. And to combine all this into a unity – ah, this is a colossally difficult task! The example of Germany has already shown us this. There, in Central Germany, that section of the proletariat which prior to the war was the most backward and the most devoted to the Hohenzollerns, that section has today become the most revolutionary and dynamic.

The same thing happened in our country when the most backward proletarian section – the Ural proletariat – owing to a whole number of causes became at a certain moment the most revolutionary. They underwent a major inner crisis. And on the other hand, turning back to Germany, let us take for example the advanced workers of Berlin and Saxony who entered upon the road of the revolution early, and immediately succeeded in burning their fingers; not only did they fail to take power, but they suffered a defeat and have therefore since then become much more cautious. At the same time the workers’ movement in Central Germany, a very revolutionary movement which began with such great enthusiasm – this movement failed to coincide with the movement of those workers who were much more highly developed, but who were more cautious and, in some ways, more conservative. From this example alone you can already see, Comrades, how difficult it is to combine the disparate manifestations among workers of different trades and on different levels of development and culture. In the progress of the world labor movement, women proletarians play a colossal role. I say this not because I am addressing a women’s conference but because sheer numbers indicate what an important part the woman worker plays in the mechanism of the capitalist world – in France, in Germany, in America, in Japan, in every capitalist country ... Statistics inform me that in Japan there are many more women than men workers; and consequently, if the data at my disposal is credible, in the labor movement of Japan they, the proletarian women, are destined to play the decisive role and to occupy the decisive place. And generally speaking, in the world labor movement the woman worker stands closest precisely to the section of the proletariat represented by the miners of Central Germany to whom I have just referred; that is, that section of labor which is the most backward, the most oppressed, the lowliest of the lowly. And just because of this, in the years of the colossal world revolution this section of the proletariat can and must become the most active, the most revolutionary, and the most initiative section of the working class.

Naturally, mere energy, mere readiness to attack are not enough. But at the same time history is filled with instances such as these: that during a more or less protracted epoch prior to the revolution, within the male section of the working class, especially among its more privileged layers, there accumulates excessive caution, excessive conservatism, too much opportunism and over-much adaptivity. And the reaction to their own backwardness and degradation which is evinced by women, that reaction, I repeat, can play a colossal role in the revolutionary movement as a whole. There is added reason to believe that we have at present come up against a kink in history, a temporary stoppage. Three years after the imperialist war capitalism remains in existence. This is a fact. This stoppage shows how slowly the object lessons of events and facts make their impress upon human minds, upon the psychology of the masses. Consciousness lags tardily behind the objective events. We see this before our very eyes. Nevertheless the logic of history will cut its way through to the consciousness of the woman toiler both in the capitalist world and in the Asiatic East. And once again it will be the task of our Congress not only to reaffirm anew but also to formulate factually and precisely that the awakening of the toiling masses in the East is today an integral part of the world revolution, just as much so as the rising of the proletarians in the West. And the reason for it is this: If English capitalism, the most powerful capitalism in weakened Europe, has succeeded in maintaining itself, it is precisely because it rests not alone on the scarcely revolutionary English workers, but also upon the inertia of the toiling masses of the East.

In general and on the whole, despite the fact that events are unfolding much more slowly than we had expected and wished, we can say that we have grown stronger in the interval since the First World Congress. True enough, we have shed certain illusions, but by way of compensation we have taken note of our mistakes and have learned a few things; and in place of illusions we have acquired a clearer perception. We have grown up; our organizations have become stronger. Nor have our enemies wasted this interval. All this goes to show that the struggle will be fierce and hard. This struggle sums up the significance of the work of your conference. Henceforth woman will be to a far lesser degree than ever in the past a “sister of mercy,” in the political sense of the term, that is. She will become a far more direct participant on the main revolutionary battlefront. And that is why from the bottom of my heart, even if somewhat tardily, I hail your Women’s World Conference and cry out together with you: Long Live the World Proletariat! Long Live the Women Proletarians of the World!

July 15, 1921

First 5 Years of the Comintern (Vol.1) Index

History of the Communist International Section

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Last updated on: 16.1.2007