Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 1

The Main Lesson of the Third Congress

CLASSES ARE rooted in production. Classes remain viable so long they can fullfill a necessary role in the process of social organization of labor. Classes begin losing the ground under their feet when the conditions necessary for their further existence come into contradiction with the growth of productive forces, i.e., with the further development of economy. Such is the situation in which the bourgeoisie finds itself at the present time.

But this does not at all mean that a class, which has lost its living roots and has become parasitic, is by this very reason doomed to instantaneous death. While economy constitutes the foundation of class rule, the respective classes maintain themselves in power by means of the state – political apparatuses and organs, namely: army, police, party, courts, press, etc., etc. With the aid of these organs, which in relation to the economic foundation represent a “superstructure,” the ruling class may perpetuate itself in power for years and decades after it has become a direct brake upon the social development. If such a situation endures too long, an outlived ruling class can drag down with it those countries and peoples over whom it rules.

Hence arises the necessity of revolution. The new class with living roots in economic development – the proletariat – must overthrow the bourgeoisie, must tear power out of its hands and convert the state apparatus into an instrument of economic reorganization of society.

The bourgeoisie had become a parasitic and anti-social class even prior to the World War. The incompatibility of bourgeois rule with the further development of economy, and even with the further preservation of economy, has been disclosed on a grandiose scale during the war. Furthermore, the war has not only laid bare this incompatibility but has also reinforced it in the extreme, bringing it to the highest pitch of intensity. The war has shattered the economic foundation of bourgeois society. At the same time the war has extraordinarily disorganized, weakened, discredited and paralyzed the political organs of bourgeois rule: the state, the army, the police, the parliament, the press, and so on. In the initial postwar period the bourgeoisie was in a state of extreme disorientation; it was fearful of the day of reckoning, had lost confidence in the old methods and usages of its rule, kept apprehensively probing the soil, kept wavering, and readily agreed to concessions. In the most critical year for the bourgeois the year 1919, The proletariat of Europe could have undoubtedly conquered state ower with minimum sacrifices, had there been at its head a genuine revolutionary organizatiom, setting forth clear aims and capably pursuing them, i.e., a strong Communist Party. But there was none. On the contrary, in seeking after the war to conquer new living conditions for itself and in assuming an offensive against bourgeois society, the working class had to drag on its back the parties and trade unions of the Second International, all of whose efforts, both conscious and instinctive, were essentially directed toward the preservation of capitalist society.

By employing this Social-Democratic shield, the bourgeoisie was able to take the best possible advantage of the breathing spell. It recovered from its panic, stabilized its state organs, supplemented them with counter-revolutionary armed gangs and started handpicking politicians who are specialists in applying combined methods in the struggle against the open revolutionary movement and who operate through intimidation, bribery, provocation, segregation, division, etc., etc. The basic task of these specialists, is to engage isolated detachments of the proletarian vanguard in a series of battles, bleed them white and thus undermine the faith of the working class in the possibility of success.

In the field of economic restoration, the bourgeoisie has achieved nothing essential during the three years that have elapsed since the war. On the contrary, it is only today that the economic consequences of the war are unfolding in their full scope in the form of a crisis unprecedented in capitalist history. We thus have here a very graphic illustration showing that the political conditions of rule, although they are in the last analysis dependent on the economic conditions, do not at all run parallel to these economic conditions nor flow from them automatically. Whereas in the field of production and exchange the world capitalist apparatus has today fallen into such a state of complete disorganization that the situation in 1919 appears as the height of well-being in comparison with the present one, in the field of politics the bourgeoisie has in this interval succeeded to a very large degree in strengthening the organs and vehicles of its rule. The leaders of the bourgeoisie see all too clearly the economic abyss which yawns before them. But they are prepared and they will fight to the end. They approach the existing situation in terms of political strategy. Coolly and calculatingly they watch everty move of the proletariat, seeking too isolated bloody defeats.

During the last three years the workers have fought a great deal and have suffered many sacrifices. But they have not won power. As a result the working masses have become more cautious than they were in 1919-20. Throughout a series of spontaneous and semi-spontaneous offensives the workers have each time run up against resistance better and better organized and they were flung back. They have understood and sensed that the prerequisite of success is a firm leadership, that one must know how to calculate and plan, that revolutionary strategy is indispensable. If the working masses no longer respond today to revolutionary slogans so directly as they did in 1918-19, it is not because they have become less revolutionary but because they are less naive and more exacting. They want organizational guarantees of victory. Only that party will be able to lead them to decisive battles which reveals in practice, under all conditions and circumstances, not merely its readiness to fight, i.e., its courage, but also its ability to lead the masses in struggle, its capacity to maneuver in attack or in retreat, its skill in leading them out of the line of fire when a situation is unfavorable, its ability to combine all forces and means for a blow, and, in this way, systematically to enhance its influence and its authority over the masses. It is unquestionable that the parties of the Communist International have not by far given sufficient consideration to this task. Herein is the main source of tactical errors and internal crises mong the various Communist parties.

A purly mechanical copception of the proletarian revolution – which proceeds from the fact that capitalist economy continues to decay – has led certain groups of comrades to construe theories which are false to the core: the false theory of an initiating minority which by its heroism shatters “the wall of universal passivity” of the proletariat. The false theory of uninterrupted offensives conducted by the proletarian vanguard, as a “new method” of struggle; the false theory of partial battles which are waged by applying the methods of armed insurrection. And so forth and so on. The clearest exponent of this tendency is the Vienna journal Communism. It is absolutely self-evident that tactical theories of this sort have nothing in common with Marxism. To apply them in practice is to play directly into the hands of the bourgeoisie’s military-political leaders and their strategy.

Undeniably these adventurist methods and theories arise as a reaction to the reformist and centrist tendencies within the labor movement, whose direct supplement they are. But while the reformist and centrist tendencies have been transformed into a force predominantly external and into an open enemy, the adventurist and subjective tendencies represent primarily an internal danger, whose gravity it would be completely inexcusable to underestimate. “The trouble with revolutionary subjectivism, as Herzen [1] put it, is this, that it mistakes the second or fifth month of pregnancy for the ninth. No one has yet done so with impunity.

The Third Congress took note of the further falling apart of the economic foundations of bourgeois rule. But it has at the same time forcibly warned the advanced workers against any naive conceptions that from this flows automatically the death of the bourgeoisie through an uninterrupted offensive by the proletariat. Never before has the bourgeoisie’s class instinct of self-preservation been armed with such multiform methods of defense and attack as today. The economic preconditions for the victory of the working class are at hand. Failing this victory, and moreover unless this victory comes in the more or less near future, all civilization is menaced with decline and degeneration. But this victory can be gained only by the skilled conduct of battles and, above all, by first conquering the majority of the working class. This is the main lesson of the Third Congress.

First published in Pravda, No.150, June 12, 1921


1. Herzen – a revolutionary democrat in the middle of the nineteenth century, founder of Russian Narodnikism (Populism). In the reign of Czar Nicholas I, Herzen was compelled to migrate to Europe (London) where he issued the famous revolutionary magazine Kolokol.

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Last updated on: 16.1.2007