Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

A School of
Revolutionary Strategy

The Third World Congress of the Communist International

Speech at a General Party Membership Meeting of the Moscow Organization. July 1921 [1]

(Part I)

Comrades, the internal causation and lawfulness of historical development was formulated for the first time by Marxist theory. The theory of Marxism, as Marx himself wrote in the introduction to his work Critique of Political Economy, established approximately the following proposition with regard to revolution: No social system departs from the arena until it has developed the productive forces to the maximum degree attainable under the given system; and no new social system appears on the scene unless the economic premises necessary for it have already been prepared by the old social system. This truth, which is basic for revolutionary policy, unquestionably retains all its meaning as a guide for us to this very moment. But more than once has Marxism been understood mechanically, unilaterally and therefore erroneously. Wrong conclusions may likewise be drawn from the foregoing proposition.

Marx says that a social system must leave the scene once the productive forces – technology, man’s power over nature – can no longer develop within its framework. From the standpoint of Marxism, historical society, as such, is an organization of collective man – man in the aggregate – for the purpose of increasing man’s power over nature. Of course this goal is not posed extrinsically by human beings, but in the course of their development they struggle for it, adapting themselves to the objective conditions of their environment and constantly increasing their power over nature’s elemental forces.

The proposition that conditions for a revolution – for a deep-going social revolution and not simply for superficial, though sanguinary. political overturns – conditions for a social revolution which replaces one economic system by another, are created only when the old social order no longer leaves room for the development of productive forces – this proposition does not at all mean that the old social order unfailingly collapses as soon as it becomes reactionary in the economic sense, that is, as soon as it begins to retard the development of the technological power of man. Not at all. For while the productive forces constitute the basic driving force of historical development, the latter nevertheless occurs not separate and apart from human beings, but through them. The productive forces – the means whereby social man dominates nature – take shape, it is true, independently of the will of any single individual and are only slightly dependent upon the common will of human beings alive today, because technology represents the accumulated capital inherited by us from the past, which impels us forward, and which under certain conditions also holds us back. But when the productive forces, when technology become too restricted within an old framework, say that of slavery, or feudal or bourgeois society, and when a change of social forms become necessary for the further growth of mankind’s power, then this is not accomplished automatically, like the sun rises and sets, but must be accomplished through human beings, through the struggle of human beings welded into classes. To replace a social class, governing an old society that has turned reactionary, must come a new social class which possesses the program for a new social order meeting the needs for the development of productive forces, and which is prepared to realize this program in life. But it by no means always happens when a given social system has outlived itself, i.e., has turned reactionary, that a new class appears, conscious enough, organized enough and powerful enough to cast down life’s old masters and pave the way for new social relations. No, this does not at all always happen.

On the contrary, more than once, it has happened in history that an old society exhausted itself, for example, the ancient slave society of Rome – and preceding it there were the ancient Asian civilizations whose foundation of slavery opened up no room for the development of productive forces. But within this outlived society there existed no new class strong enough to overthrow the slave-holders and institute a new, a feudal, system, because the feudal system was, compared to slavery, a step forward.

In its turn, within the feudal system there was not always to be found in the hour of need a new class, the bourgeoisie, to overthrow the feudalists and to open the road for historical development. It has more than once happened in history that a given society, a given nation, or people, or a tribe, or several tribes and nations, living under similar historical conditions, have run up against the impossibility of developing any further on a given economic foundation – slavery or feudalism – but inasmuch as no new class existed among them capable of leading them out to the main highway, they simply fell apart. The given civilization, the given state, the given society disintegrated. Mankind has thus not always moved upwards from below in a steady, rising curve. No, there have been prolonged periods of stagnation and there have been regressions into barbarism. Societies rose upwards, attained certain levels, but were unable to maintain themselves upon these heights. Mankind does not remain standing in one place, owing to class and national struggles its equilibrium is unstable; a society that is unable to move forward, falls back, and if no class exists to lift it higher, this society begins to fall apart, opening the road to barbarism.

For a clear conception of this extremely complex problem, the general abstract considerations I have just developed do not suffice, Comrades. Young Comrades with little experience in such questions should apply themselves to a study of historical works in order to master the factual material pertaining to the history of different countries and peoples, particularly and especially their economic history. Only then is it possible to attain a more concrete and clearer conception of the inner mechanics of society. This mechanics must be clearly understood in order to apply Marxism correctly to tactics, i.e., to the class struggle in practice.

Questions of Revolutionary Tactics

Some comrades have a far too simplified approach to the victory of the proletariat. There obtains today not alone in Europe but on a world scale a situation which permits us, from the standpoint of Marxism, to say with complete assurance that the bourgeois system has completely drained itself. The world productive forces cannot develop further within the framework of bourgeois society. On the contrary, what we have witnessed during the last decade is the falling apart, the disintegration of the economic foundations of capitalist society coupled with the use of machines for the destruction of accumulated wealth. We are now living in conditions of the most appalling and unprecedented crisis in world history, not simply a periodic “normal crisis” unavoidable in the process of the development of productive forces under capitalism, but a crisis which signifies that the productive forces of bourgeois society are falling apart and decomposing. There still may be ups and downs, but, in general, as I told the comrades in this very hall a month and a half ago, the curve of capitalist economic development swings through all the fluctuations, not upwards but downwards. But does this mean that the doom of the bourgeoisie is automatically and mechanically predetermined? No. The bourgeoisie is a living class which has risen on specific economic, productive foundations. This class is not a passive product of economic development, but a living, dynamic, active historical force. This class has outlived itself, i.e., has become the most fearsome brake upon historical development. But this must not at all be taken to mean that this class is prone to historical suicide, that it is ready to say, “Since the scientific theory of historical development finds me reactionary, therefore I leave the scene.” Of course, there cannot even be talk of this. On the other hand, the recognition by the Communist Party of the fact that the bourgeois class is condemned and subject to elimination, is likewise far from sufficient to assure the victory of the proletariat. No, the bourgeoisie must still be defeated and overthrown!

If the further development of productive forces was conceivable within the framework of bourgeois society, then revolution would generally be impossible. But since the further development of the productive forces within the framework of bourgeois society is inconceivable, the basic premise for the revolution is given. But revolution in and of itself signifies a living class struggle. The bourgeoisie, even though it finds itself in a complete contradiction with the demands of historical progress, nevertheless still remains the most powerful class. More than that, it may be said that politically the bourgeoisie attains its greatest powers, its greatest concentration of forces and resources, of political and military means of deception, of coercion, and provocation, i.e., the flowering of its class strategy, at the moment when it is most immediately threatened by social ruin. The war and its terrible consequences – and the war sprang precisely from the fact that the productive forces had no room to develop further within the frame. work of bourgeois society – the war and its consequences, I say, have confronted the bourgeoisie with the terrible threat of destruction. This has rendered its instinct of class self-preservation sensitive in the extreme. The greater the danger, all the more does the class, like the individual, exert its vital forces in the struggle for self-preservation. Let us not forget also that the bourgeoisie finds itself face to face with mortal danger, after having accumulated colossal political experience. The bourgeoisie has created and destroyed all sorts of régimes. Its development occurred under pure absolutism, under constitutional monarchy, under parliamentary monarchy, under a democratic republic, under a Bonapartist dictatorship, under a state bound up with the Catholic Church, under a state bound up with the Reformation, under a state separated from the Church, under a state persecuting the Church, etc., etc. All this varied and rich experience which has entered into the blood and marrow of bourgeois ruling circles has now been mobilized by them in order to maintain themselves in power at any cost. And they act the more resourcefully, cunningly, ruthlessly, all the more clearly their leaders take cognizance of the threatening danger.

From a superficial standpoint there appears to be some sort of contradiction here: We have brought the bourgeoisie for judgement before the court of Marxism, i.e., the court of scientific knowledge of the historical process, and found it obsolete, and yet at the same time the bourgeoisie discloses a colossal vitality. In reality there is no contradiction here at all. This is what Marxism calls the dialectic. The gist of the matter lies in this, that the different aspects of the historical process – economics, politics, the state, the growth of the working class – do not develop simultaneously along parallel lines. The working class does not grow parallel, point for point, with the growth of the productive forces, while the bourgeoisie does not decay nor wither away parallel with the growth and strengthening of the proletariat. No, history proceeds in a different way. Productive forces develop by leaps, now whirling forwards, now dropping back. The bourgeoisie, in its turn, developed through a series of shocks and impulses. So, too, has the working class. In a period when the productive forces of capitalism have run up against a blank wall and can go no further we see the bourgeoisie gathering in its own hands the army, the police, science, schools, church, parliament, the press, the White Guard gangs; tightening the reins and mentally saying to the proletariat, “Yes, my position is dangerous. I see an abyss yawning under my feet. But we’ll wait and see who plunges first into this abyss. Perhaps before I perish, even if such is to be my fate, I’ll succeed in casting you, the working class, into the abyss.” What would this signify? This would signify the collapse of European civilization as a whole. If the bourgeoisie, which is doomed historically, were to find sufficient strength, energy and power to defeat the working class in the impending terrible combat, it would signify that Europe is condemned to economic and cultural decomposition, as happened in the past to many countries, nations and civilizations. In other words, history has brought matters to such a pass that the proletarian revolution has become unconditionally necessary for the salvation of Europe and the whole world. History has provided the basic premise for the success of this revolution – in the sense that society cannot any longer develop its productive forces on bourgeois foundations. But history does not at all assume upon itself – in place of the working class, in place of the politicians of the working class, in place of the Communists – the solution of this entire task. No, History seems to say to the proletarian vanguard (let us imagine for a moment that history is a figure looming above us), History says to the working class, “You must know that unless you cast down the bourgeoisie, you will perish beneath the ruins of civilization. Try, solve this task!” Such is the state of affairs today.

We see that in Europe, after the war, the working class is trying semi-spontaneously, semi-consciously to solve the task set before it by history. And the practical conclusion which all the thinking elements of the working class in Europe and the whole world had to draw after the three years following the termination of the world war, reads as follows: Overthrowing the bourgeoisie, even though it has been condemned by history, is neither so simple nor so easy as it might have seemed.

Europe and the whole world are passing through a period which is, on the one side, an epoch of the disintegration of the productive forces of bourgeois society, and, on the other side, an epoch of the highest flowering of the counter-revolutionary strategy of the bourgeoisie. We must understand this clearly and precisely. Counter-revolutionary strategy, i.e., the art of waging a combined struggle against the proletariat by every method from saccharine, professorial-clerical preachments to machine-gunning of strikers, has never attained such heights as it does today.

Lansing [2], the former US Secretary of State, in his book on the Versailles Peace remarks that Lloyd George is ignorant of geography, economics, etc. We readily incline to believe him. But for us it is absolutely incontestable that this same Lloyd George has stored in his head all the usages of duping and coercing the toilers, from the most cunning and subtle tricks to the bloodiest; he has assimilated the entire experience provided by English history on this score, and has developed and perfected all this in the experience of the last three stormy years. Lloyd George is in his own way a superb strategist of the bourgeoisie, threatened with historical ruin. And we must say – nowise minimizing thereby either the present or all the less so the future of the English Communist Party which is still very young – we must say that the English proletariat possesses no such strategists as yet.

In France the President of the Republic, Millerand, formerly a member of a working-class party, and Briand, the head of the government, who once used to propagate the idea of “General Strike” among the workers – both of them have used the French bourgeoisie’s entire rich political experience plus the experience which they themselves had gained in the camp of the proletariat – used it in the service of the cause of the bourgeoisie, as its skilled counter-revolutionary strategists. In Italy, in Germany, we see how carefully the bourgeoisie promotes from its ranks individuals and groups that concentrate the entire experience of the bourgeoisie’s class struggle for its own development, enrichment, consolidation and self-preservation.

The School of Revolutionary Strategy

The task of the working class – in Europe and throughout the world – consists in counterposing to the thoroughly thought-out counter-revolutionary strategy of the bourgeoisie its own revolutionary strategy, likewise thought out to the end. For this it is first of all necessary to understand that it will not be possible to overthrow the bourgeoisie automatically, mechanically, merely because it is condemned by history. On the highly complex field of political struggle we find, on the one side, the bourgeoisie with its forces and resources and, on the opposing side, the working class with its various layers, moods, levels of development, with its Communist Party struggling against other parties and organizations for influence over the working masses. In this struggle the Communist Party, which is actually moving steadily to the head of the European working class, has to manoeuvre, now attacking, now retreating, always consolidating its influence, conquering new positions until the favourable moment arrives for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie. Let me repeat, this is a complex strategical task and the last World Congress posed this task in its full scope. From this standpoint, one may say that the Third Congress of the Communist International was the highest school of revolutionary strategy.

The First Congress convened after the war at a time when Communism was just being born as a European movement and when there was a certain justification for reckoning and hoping that the semi-spontaneous onset of the working class might overthrow the bourgeoisie before the latter succeeded in finding a new orientation and new post-war points of support. Such moods and expectations were by and large justified by the objective situation at the time. The bourgeoisie was terribly frightened by the consequence of its own war policy which, in its turn, had been imposed upon the bourgeoisie by the objective conditions. I dealt with this in my report on the world situation and will not repeat it here. In any case, it is unquestionable that in the era of the First Congress (1919) many of us reckoned – some more, others less – that the spontaneous onset of the workers and in part of the peasant masses would overthrow the bourgeoisie in the near future. And, as a matter of fact, this onset was truly colossal. The number of casualties was very large. But the bourgeoisie was able to withstand this initial onset and precisely for this reason regained its class self-confidence.

The Second Congress in 1920 convened at the breaking point. It could already be sensed that by the onset alone the bourgeoisie would not be overthrown in a few weeks or in one, two or three months; that needed was a more serious organizational and political preparation. But at the same time the situation remained very acute. You will recall, the Red Army was then advancing on Warsaw and it was possible to calculate that because of the revolutionary situation in Germany, Italy and other countries, the military impulse – without, of course, any independent significance of its own but as an auxiliary force introduced into the struggle of the European forces – might bring down the landslide of revolution, then temporarily at a dead point. This did not happen. We were beaten back.

After the Second Congress of the Communist International it became increasingly clear that the working class was in need of a more complex revolutionary strategy. We see the working masses, after acquiring a serious post-war experience, themselves moving in this direction, and as a primary result of this the Communist parties everywhere experience growth. During the initial period millions of workers in Germany threw themselves into frontal assaults upon the old order, almost without paying attention to the Spartacus League. What did this mean? After the war, it seemed to the working masses that now was the time to make demands, to press forward, to deal a blow – and there would be a change in many things, if not in everything. That is why millions of workers deemed it unnecessary to expend their energy on building the Communist Party. Meanwhile, last year saw the Communist parties in Germany and France – two of the most important countries on the European continent – transformed from circle-groups into organizations embracing workers by the hundreds of thousands. In Germany there are about 400,000; in France, between 120,000 and 130,000, which is a very high figure under the French conditions. This shows how deeply the working masses during this period became imbued with the realization that it is impossible to win without a special organization where the working class is able to weigh its experience and draw conclusions from it – in a word, a centralized party leadership. Herein is the great conquest of the period just elapsed – the creation of mass Communist parties, among which should be listed the Czechoslovak party, numbering 350,000 members. (After fusing with the German Communist Organization of Czechoslovakia this party will number about 400,000 among a population of 12 million.)

It would, however, be a mistake to expect of these young and just risen Communist parties that they immediately master the art of revolutionary strategy. No! Last year’s tactical experience testifies all too clearly to the contrary. And the Third Congress came to grips with this question.

The last World Congress, taken in its most general aspects, had two tasks before it. One was and remains: To cleanse the working class, including our own Communist ranks, of elements who do not want to struggle, who fear struggle and who use this or that theory in order to cover up their aversion from struggle and their inner inclination to conciliate with bourgeois society. The purge of the labour movement as a whole, and all the more so of the Communist ranks, of reformist, centrist, semi-centrist elements and moods is twofold in character: Where conscious centrists, case-hardened conciliators or semi-conciliators are concerned – they must be forthwith driven out of the ranks of the Communist Party and the labour movement; where it is a question of vague semi-centrist moods, such elements must be given firm guidance, subjected to influence and drawn into the revolutionary struggle. This is the first task of the Communist International – to purge the party of the working class of all elements who do not want to struggle and who thereby paralyse the struggle of the proletariat. But there is a second and no less important task: To learn the art of struggle, an art which by no means fans from the skies like manna for the working class or its Communist, Party. The art of tactics and strategy, the art of revolutionary struggle can be mastered only through experience, through criticism and self-criticism. At the Third World Congress we told the young Communists: “Comrades, we desire not only heroic struggle, we desire first of all victory. During the last few years, we have seen no few heroic struggles in Europe, especially in Germany. We have seen in Italy large-scale revolutionary struggles, a civil war with its unavoidable sacrifices. Of course, every struggle does not lead to victory. Defeats are inescapable. But these defeats must not come through the fault of our party. Yet we have seen many manifestations and methods of struggle which do not and cannot lead to victory, for they are dictated time and time again by revolutionary impatience and not by political sagacity.”

This was the axis of the ideological struggle that took place at the Third World Congress. I must, Comrades, make a reservation here to the effect that this struggle was not at all embittered or “factional” in character. On the contrary, the atmosphere at the congress was deeply comradely, serious and businesslike; and the ideological struggle was of a rigidly principled character and there was at the same time a businesslike interchange of opinions.

The congress was a big revolutionary-political soviet of the working class. And there, at this soviet, we, the representatives of various countries, on the basis of experience in these countries, on the one hand, verified, once again reaffirmed in practice and rendered more precise our theses concerning the need of purging the working class of all elements who do not want to struggle and who are incapable of struggle; and, on the other hand, we for the first time posed bluntly and in its full scope the following issue: The revolutionary struggle for power has its own laws, its own usages, its own tactics, its own strategy. Those who do not master this art will never taste victory.

Centrist Tendencies in Italian Socialism

The tasks of struggle with centrist or semi-centrist elements were delineated most clearly in the case of the Italian Socialist Party. You are acquainted with the history of this question. The Italian Socialist Party passed through an important internal struggle and a split even prior to the imperialist war. This cleansed the party of the worst chauvinists. Besides, Italy entered the war nine months later than other countries. This made it easier for the Italian party to conduct its anti-war policy. The party did not fall into patriotism but preserved a critical attitude toward the war and toward the government. This impelled it to participate in the anti-militarist Zimmerwald Conference [3], although its internationalism was rather formless. Later the vanguard of the Italian working class pushed the leading party circles still farther to the left and the party found itself inside the Third International – along with Turati who contends in his speeches and articles that the Third International is nothing except a diplomatic tool in the hands of the Soviet power, which, under the guise of internationalism, is waging a struggle for the “national” interests of the Russian people. Isn’t it monstrous to hear such pronouncements on the lips – with your indulgence – of a “comrade” in the Third International? The abnormality of the Italian Socialist Party’s adhering in its old form to the Communist International was most glaringly revealed during the large-scale mass action of last September. One must say that in the course of this movement this party betrayed the working class.

If one were to ask how and why did this party retreat and capitulate in the autumn of last year, during the mass strike, during the seizure of factories, plants, estates, etc., by the workers? If one were to ask what was the dominant element in this betrayal? Was it malignant reformism, or indecision, political light-mindedness or something else? To such questions it would be difficult to give an exact answer. The Italian Socialist Party came, after the war, under the influence of the Communist International, which enabled its left wing to express itself more vociferously than the right wing. This fully corresponded to the moods of the masses. But the organizational apparatus remained for the most part in the hands of the centre and the right wing. The party carried on agitation in favour of the dictatorship of the proletariat, in favour of the Soviet power, in favour of the hammer and sickle, in favour of soviet Russia, etc. The Italian working class en masse took all this seriously and entered the road of open revolutionary struggle. In September of last year matters reached the point of seizure of factories, plants, mines, large estates, etc. But precisely at the moment when the party should have drawn all the political, organizational and practical conclusions from its own agitation, it became scared of the responsibility and shied away, leaving the rear of the proletariat unprotected. The working masses were left exposed to the blows of Fascist gangs. The working class thought and hoped that the party which had summoned it to struggle would consolidate the success of its assault. And this success could have been sealed, such hope was fully justified, inasmuch as the bourgeois power was at that time demoralized and paralysed, unable to depend either on the army or on the police apparatus. It was only natural, I repeat, for the working class to think that the party standing at its head would lead to its conclusion the struggle that had commenced. But at the most critical moment the party, on the contrary, beat a retreat, beheading the working class and rendering it powerless. It then became definitely and absolutely clear that politicians of this sort had no place in the ranks of the Third International. The ECCI acted perfectly correctly in recognizing, after the split which presently occurred in the Italian party, that only the Left Communist Wing constituted a section of the Communist International. Therewith the party of Serrati, i.e., the leading section of the old Italian Socialist Party, found itself outside the Third International. Unfortunately – it might have been owing to exceptionally unfavourable conditions, or perhaps also owing to mistakes on our part – unfortunately, the Communist Party of Italy when it was formed drew into its ranks less than 50,000 members, while Serrati’s party kept about 100,000, among them 14,000 transparent reformists, constituting an organized faction. (They held their own conference at Reggio-Emilia.) Naturally, 100,000 workers, belonging to a Socialist party, are under no circumstances our adversaries. If we have been unable up to now to draw them completely into our ranks, then we are not entirely blameless here. The correctness of this thought is evidenced by the fact that the Socialist Party of Italy, which had been expelled from the Third International, sent three of its representatives to our congress. What does this mean? The ruling circles of the party had, by their policy, placed themselves outside the International, but the working masses compel them gain and again to knock on the doors of the International.

The worker-Socialists have thereby shown that their mood is revolutionary and that they want to be with us. But they sent people who have by their conduct revealed that they failed to assimilate the ideas and methods of Communism. By this the Italian workers belonging to Serrati’s party showed that while being in their majority revolutionary in their moods, they had not yet attained the necessary political clarity.

There came to our congress the aged Lazzari. Personally, he is very likeable, unquestionably an honest man, an old fighter, an irreproachable individual, but in no case a Communist. He is completely under the sway of democratic, humanitarian and pacifist views. He argued at the congress: “You exaggerate Turati’s importance. You generally incline to exaggerate the importance of our reformists. You demand of us that we expel them. But how can we expel them when they submit to party discipline? If they provided us – said Lazzari – with a fact of openly opposing the party, if they joined the government against our decision, if they voted for the military budget against our instructions, then we could expel them. But not otherwise.”

We called his attention to Turati’s articles which are directed wholly against the ABC of revolutionary socialism. Lazzari objected that these articles did not constitute facts, that they have freedom of opinion in the Italian party, and so on. To this we again answered him: “By your leave, if to expel Turati you need an accomplished fact’, i.e., his accepting a portfolio from Giolitti then it is unquestionable that Turati who is a clever politician will never take this step. For Turati is not at all a shoddy careerist whose sole concern is to obtain a portfolio. Turati is a case-hardened conciliator, an irreconcilable enemy of the revolution, but in his own way, an ideological politician. He wants to save at any cost the bourgeois-democratic civilization’ and therefore to defeat the revolutionary tendency in the working class. When Giolitti offers him a portfolio – and this probably happened more than once in secluded places – Turati makes approximately the following reply: My acceptance of the portfolio would constitute the very “fact” referred to by Lazzari. The moment I accept the portfolio I would be caught up on this “fact” and driven out of the party. But the moment I am driven out of the party, I won’t be of much use to you, either, my dear godfather Giolitti. For you need me only so long as I am connected with a large workers’ party. It follows therefore that after I am expelled from the party you would boot me out of the Ministry.”

That is approximately how Turati reasons, and he is correct, he is much more far-sighted than the idealistic and pacifistic Lazzari.

“You overestimate Turati’s group,” said Lazzari. “It is a small group. As the French say, a negligible quantity.”

To this we replied, “And do you know that while you take the floor at the Moscow International with the demand that you be admitted into our ranks, Giolitti is calling Turati on the phone and asking: ‘Are you aware, dear friend, that Lazzari has gone to Moscow and that he might make there in the name of your party some dangerous commitments to the Russian Bolsheviks?’ Do you know what Turati answers to this? In all likelihood he says, ‘Don’t worry, my bosom friend Giolitti, our Lazzari is a quantité négligeable, a negligible quantity.’” And he is infinitely more correct than Lazzari.

Such was the dialogue between us and the vacillating representatives of a considerable section of the Italian workers. It was finally decided to put an ultimatum to the Italian Socialists: They must convene within three months a party conference, expel at this conference all the reformists whose roll-call was taken by themselves at their Reggio-Emilia Conference, and unite with the Communists on the basis of the decisions of the Third Congress. What the immediate practical results of this decision will be, it is impossible to say exactly. Will all the followers of Serrati come over to us? I doubt it. But this is hardly desirable. Among them there are some we have no use for at all. But the step taken by the congress was correct. Its aim is to win over the workers to us, by effecting a split in the ranks of the vacillating leaders.

Italian Communism – Its Difficulties, Its Tasks

Among the delegates of the Italian Communist Party and also among the representatives of the youth there were to be found, however, some very incensed critics of this step. The Italian Communists, most of whom deviated to the left, criticized the congress most sharply for having “opened the doors” to the Serrati-ites, opportunists and centrists. This expression – ”you opened the doors of the Communist International“ – was repeated scores of times. We pointed out to them, “Comrades, you have as yet about 50,000 workers while the Serrati-ites have about 100,000. After all, it is impermissible to rest contented with such a result.” They disputed the figures a little, pointing out that there had been mass departures from the Socialist Party, which is quite possible. But their chief argument ran as follows: “The Socialist Party as a whole, and not its leaders alone, is reformist, opportunist.” We asked, “How and why, then, did they send Lazzari, Maffi and Riboldi to Moscow?” The young Italian Communists gave me an answer that was quite vague, “You see, the whole point is that the Italian working class as a whole is gravitating toward Moscow and is pushing the opportunists in this direction.” This is an obviously forced explanation. If the situation were such that the Italian working class as a whole was surging toward Moscow, it had a widely opened door to get to Moscow, namely: the Italian Communist Party, adhering to the International. Why then did the Italian working class choose such a roundabout way to Moscow, keep pushing Serrati’s party instead of simply joining the Communist Party of Italy? It is quite obvious that all these objections of the Left Communists were spurious, arising from an insufficient understanding of the basic task – the need of winning over the vanguard of the working class and first of all, those workers, by no means the worst types, who remained in the ranks of the Socialist Party of Italy. It was precisely these workers who brought Lazzari to Moscow. The mistake of the “lefts” stems from a special kind of revolutionary impatience which causes one to lose sight of the most important preparatory and preliminary tasks and which invariably brings the greatest harm to the interests of our cause. It seems to some “lefts” that since the immediate task is to overthrow the bourgeoisie, therefore is it really worthwhile pausing along the road in order to engage in negotiations with the Serrati-ites, open the doors for workers who follow Serrati, etc., etc.? And yet that is the chief task today. And it is not at all a simple task. Needed here are negotiations as well as struggle as well as exhortations: involved here are new unifications and in all likelihood new splits. But some impatient comrades wanted simply to turn their backs upon this problem and consequently also upon the worker-Socialists. Let those who are in favour of the Third International come right into our Communist Party. On the surface this seems to be the simplest solution of the problem but in reality it skirts the question, for the latter precisely consists in knowing how, and through what methods to attract the worker-Socialist into the Communist Party.

This task cannot be solved automatically by “shutting the doors” of the International. After all, the Italian workers know that the Socialist Party, too, belonged to the Third International. Its leaders made revolutionary speeches, summoned to struggle, called for the Soviet power and precipitated the September strike, the seizure of factories and plants. Then they capitulated, failing to join the battle when the workers were engaged in fighting. Today the vanguard of the Italian proletariat is mentally digesting this fact. The workers see that a Communist minority has separated from the Socialist Party and has addressed itself to them with the same or virtually the same speeches which they heard yesterday from Serrati’s party. The workers say to themselves, “We must wait, we must see what this means, we must examine ...” In other words they are demanding perhaps not very articulately or consciously but in the nature of things very persistently that the new, Communist Party prove itself in action, that the leaders demonstrate in practice that they are made of different stuff from the leaders of the old party and that they are inseparably bound up with the masses in their struggle, no matter how harsh may be the conditions of this struggle. It is necessary by word and deed, by deed and word to conquer the confidence of tens of thousands worker-Socialists who still remain at the crossroads but who would like to be in our ranks. If we were simply to turn our backs on them, allegedly in the name of immediately overthrowing the bourgeoisie, then we could cause no little harm thereby to the revolution. And meanwhile, precisely in Italy the conditions are very favourable for the triumph of the proletarian revolution in the rather near future.

Let us imagine for a moment – this is only by way of example – that the Italian Communists, say, in May of this year were to summon the Italian working class to a new general strike and an insurrection. Suppose they said: “Since the Socialist Party, whose ranks we have left, proved itself bankrupt in September, it therefore follows that we, Communists, must now erase this blot at any cost and lead the working class immediately into the decisive battle.” From a superficial standpoint, this might actually seem to be the duty of the Communists. But that is really not the case at all. According to elementary revolutionary strategy, such a summons would be a piece of insanity and a crime, in the given conditions, because the working class which had, under the leadership of the Socialist Party, cruelly burnt its fingers in September, would not believe it possible to successfully repeat this experience in May under the leadership of the Communist Party with which it had not yet had the opportunity to become really acquainted. The Socialist Party was guilty in the main of “calling” for a revolution without first drawing all the necessary conclusions, that is, it really made no preparations for the revolution, failed to explain to the advanced workers the questions bound up with the conquest of power, failed to purge its ranks of those who did not want the conquest of power, failed to select and train reliable cadres of fighters, failed to create assault groups capable of handling weapons and capable of seizing weapons at the necessary moment ... In brief, the Socialist Party called for the revolution but did not prepare for it. If the Italian Communists were now simply to call for revolution they would be repeating the mistake of the Socialists – only under far more difficult conditions. The task of our sister party in Italy is to prepare for the revolution. That is to say, first of all conquer the majority of the working class and organize its vanguard in a proper way. Anyone who curbed the impatient section of the Italian Communists and said to them: Before calling for the uprising you must first win over the worker-Socialists, cleanse the trade unions, elect Communists there in place of opportunists to responsible posts, conquer the masses – he who said this might superficially appear to be dragging the Communists back but in reality he would thereby be pointing out the real road to the victory of the revolution.

The Fears and Suspicions of the Extreme “Left”

All of the foregoing, Comrades, is ABC from the standpoint of serious revolutionary experience. But there were some “left” elements in the congress who saw in this tactic a shift “to the right”. And some young revolutionary comrades, lacking in experience, but brimful of energy and readiness to struggle and self-sacrifice, literally felt their hair stand up on their heads when they heard the first critical and admonitory speeches of the Russian comrades. Among these young revolutionists there were some, who, I am told, kissed the Soviet soil upon crossing the frontier. And although we still work our soil far too poorly to make it worthy of such kisses, we nevertheless appreciate the revolutionary enthusiasm of our young foreign friends. They think it a shame and a disgrace that they have been so laggard and haven’t as yet accomplished their revolution. They came with these feelings into the hall of the Nikolayevsk Palace – and what happened? Russian Communists took the floor there and not only failed to demand an immediate summons to insurrection but, on the contrary, issued all sorts of warnings against adventures and insisted upon attracting the worker-Socialists, upon conquering the majority of the toilers on the basis of careful preparation.

Certain extreme lefts even decided that not everything was above-board here. Semi-hostile elements like delegates from the so-called Communist Workers’ Party of Germany (this group has a consultative vote in the International) began reasoning to the effect that up to recently the Russian Soviet power did actually entertain hopes of a revolution in Europe and did shape its policies accordingly, but that later its patience became exhausted and it began concluding trade agreements and developed through its People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade a large-scale world commerce. Commerce, on the other hand, is a serious business requiring tranquil and peaceful relations. It has long been known that revolutionary convulsions are harmful to commerce, and from the standpoint of Comrade Krassin’s [4] Commissariat we are, you see, interested in postponing and retarding the revolution as long as possible. (General laughter) Comrades, I am very sorry that your friendly laughter cannot be transmitted by radio to certain extremely leftist comrades in Germany and Italy. The hypothesis concerning the opposition of our Commissariat of Foreign Trade to revolutionary disturbances is rendered all the more curious by the fact that as recently as March of this year when tragic battles broke out in Germany, with which I shall presently deal – battles which terminated in a cruel defeat of a section of the German working class – the German bourgeois and Social-Democratic newspapers, and in their wake the press throughout the world began howling that the March uprising had been provoked by orders from Moscow, that the Soviet power, in difficult straits at that time (peasant mutinies, Kronstadt, etc.), had issued, to save itself, you see, an order to stage uprisings regardless of the situation in every given country. It is impossible to invent anything sillier than this! But no sooner had the Comrade Delegates from Rome, Berlin and Paris arrived in Moscow, than a new theory arise, but this time at the opposite and extreme left pole – according to this theory, we not only fail to “order” uprisings to be staged immediately and independently of the objective situation, but, on the contrary, we are infatuated with our beautiful trade turnover and are interested in postponing the revolution. Which of these two diametrically opposed stupidities is sillier, it is not easy to decide. If we were to blame for the March mistakes – insofar as it is possible to speak here of blame – then it was only in the sense that the International as a whole, including our own party, has up to now failed to carry on enough educational work in the sphere of revolutionary tactics, and for this reason failed to eliminate the possibility of such mistaken actions and methods. But to dream of completely eliminating mistakes would be the height of innocence.

The March Events in Germany

In a certain sense the question of the March events occupied at the congress the central place. And this was not accidental. Among all the Communist parties, our German party is one of the most powerful and best prepared theoretically. And as regards the order of revolution – if it is permissible to express oneself in this manner – Germany stands in any case in the front rank.

As a defeated country, Germany’s internal conditions are the most favourable for revolution. The numerical strength and the economic role of the German proletariat are entirely adequate to assure victory to this revolution. It is only natural for the methods of struggle applied by the German Communist Party to assume an international significance. Beginning with 1918, major events in the revolutionary struggle have transpired on Germany’s soil, and the positive and negative aspects can be analysed here from living experience.

What was the content of the March events? The proletarians of Central Germany, the workers in the mining regions, represented in recent times, even during the war, one of the most retarded sections of the German working class. In their majority they followed not the Social Democrats but the patriotic, bourgeois and clerical cliques, remained devoted to the Emperor, and so on and so forth. Their living and working conditions were exceptionally harsh. In relation to the workers of Berlin they occupied the same place, as say, did the backward Ural provinces in our country in relation to the Petersburg workers. During a revolutionary epoch it happens not infrequently that a most oppressed and backward section of the working class, awakened for the first time by the thunder of events, swings into the struggle with the greatest energy and evinces a readiness to fight under any and all conditions, far from always taking into consideration the circumstances and the chances of victory, that is, the requirements of revolutionary strategy. For example, at a time when the workers of Berlin or Saxony had become, after the experience of 1919-20, far more cautious – which has its minuses and its pluses too – the workers of Central Germany continued to engage in stormy actions, strikes and demonstrations, carting out their foremen on wheelbarrows, holding meetings during working hours, and so on. Naturally, this is incompatible with the sacred tasks of Ebert’s Republic. It is hardly surprising that this conservative-police Republic, in the person of its police agent, the Social Democrat Hörsing [5], should have decided to do a little “purging” there, i.e., drive out the most revolutionary elements, arrest several Communists, etc.

Precisely during this period (the middle of March), the Central Committee of the German Communist Party arrived firmly at the idea that there was need of conducting a more actively revolutionary policy. The German party, you will recall, had been created a short while before by the merger of the old Spartacus League and the majority of the Independent Party and thereby became confronted in practice with the question of mass actions. The idea that it was necessary to pass over to a more active policy was absolutely correct. But how did this express itself in practice? When the Social-Democratic policeman Hörsing issued his order, demanding of the workers what Kerensky’s government had more than once vainly demanded in our country, namely: that no meetings be held during working hours, that factory property be treated as a sacred trust, etc. – at this moment the Central Committee of the Communist Party issued a call for a general strike in order to aid the workers of Central Germany. A general strike is not something to which the working class responds easily, at the party’s very first call – especially if the workers have recently suffered a number of defeats, and, all the less so in a country where alongside the Communist Party there exist two mass Social-Democratic parties and where the trade-union apparatus is opposed to us. Yet, if we examine the issues of Rote Fahne, central publication of the Communist Party, throughout this period, day by day, we will see that the call for the general strike came completely unprepared. During the period of revolution there were not a few bloodlettings in Germany and the police offensive against Central Germany could not in and of itself have immediately raised the entire working class to its feet. Every serious mass action must obviously be preceded by large-scale energetic agitation, centring around action slogans, all hitting on one and the same point. Such agitation can lead to more decisive calls for action only if it reveals, after probing, that the masses have already been touched to the quick and are ready to march forward on the path of revolutionary action. This is the ABC of revolutionary strategy, but precisely this ABC was completely violated during the March events. Before the police battalions had even succeeded in reaching the factories and mines of Central Germany, a general strike did actually break out there. I already said that in Central Germany there existed the readiness to engage in immediate struggle, and the call of the Central Committee met with an immediate response. But an entirely different situation prevailed in the rest of the country. There was nothing either in the international or the domestic situation of Germany to justify such a sudden transition to activity. The masses simply failed to understand the summons.

Nevertheless, certain very influential theoreticians of the German Communist Party instead of acknowledging that this summons was a mistake, proceeded to explain it away by propounding a theory that in a revolutionary epoch we are obliged to conduct exclusively an aggressive policy, that is, the policy of revolutionary offensive. The March action is thus served up to the masses in the guise of an offensive. You can now evaluate the situation as a whole. The offensive was in reality launched by the Social-Democratic policeman Hörsing. This should have been utilized in order to unite all the workers for defence, for self-protection, even if, to begin with, a very modest resistance. Had the soil proved favourable, had the agitation met with a favourable response, it would then have been possible to pass over to the general strike. If the events continue to unfold further, if the masses rise, if the ties among the workers grow stronger, if their temper lifts, while indecision and demoralization seize the camp of the foe – then comes the time for issuing the slogan to pass over to the offensive. But should the soil prove unfavourable, should the conditions and the moods of the masses fail to correspond with the more resolute slogans, then it is necessary to sound a retreat, and to fall back to previously prepared positions in as orderly a manner as possible. Therewith we have gained this, that we proved our ability to probe the working masses, we strengthened their internal ties and, what is most important, we have raised the party’s authority for giving wise leadership under all circumstances.

But what does the leading body of the German party do? It gives the appearance of pouncing upon the very first pretext: and even before this pretext has become known to workers or assimilated by them, the Central Committee hurls the slogan of the general strike. And before the party had a chance to rally the workers of Berlin, Dresden and Munich to the aid of the workers of Central Germany – and this could perhaps have been accomplished in the space of a few days, provided there was no leaping over the events, and the masses were led forward systematically and firmly – before the party succeeded in accomplishing this work, it is proclaimed that our action is an offensive. This was already tantamount to ruining everything and paralysing the movement in advance. It is quite self-evident that at this stage the offensive came exclusively from the enemy side. It was necessary to utilize the moral element of defence, it was necessary to summon the proletariat of the whole country to hasten to the aid of the workers of Central Germany. In the initial stages this support might have assumed varied forms, until the party found itself in a position to issue a generalized slogan of action. The task of agitation consisted in raising the masses to their feet, focusing their attention upon the events in Central Germany, smashing politically the resistance of the labour bureaucracy and thus assuring a genuinely general character of the strike action as a possible base for the further development of the revolutionary struggle. But what happened instead? The revolutionary and dynamic minority of the proletariat found itself counterposed in action to the majority of the proletariat, before this majority had a chance to grasp the meaning of events. When the party ran up against the passivity and dilatoriness of the working class, the impatient Communist elements sought here and there to drive the majority of the workers into the streets, no longer by means of agitation, but by mechanical measures. If the majority of workers favour a strike, they can of course always compel the minority by forcibly shutting down the factories and thus achieving the general strike in action. This has happened more than once, it will happen in the future and only simpletons can raise objections to it. But when the crushing majority of the working class has no clear conception of the movement, or is unsympathetic to it, or does not believe it can succeed, but a minority rushes ahead and seeks to drive workers to strike by mechanical measures, then such an impatient minority can, in the person of the party, come into a hostile clash with the working class and break its own neck. [1*]

Part 2

Trotsky’s Footnotes

1*. Paul Levi, former Chairman of the Central Committee of the German Communist Party, has come forward with a criticism of the Party’s tactic during the March events. But his criticism is so absolutely and impermissibly disorganizing in character as to injure and not benefit the cause. The internal struggle led to the expulsion of Levi from the Party and this expulsion was approved by the Congress of teh International. – L.T.


1. This sub-heading comes from the New Park edition.

2. Robert Lansing was an American lawyer and diplomat. He was appointed Secretary of State when W.J. Bryan resigned on June 8, 1915. Lansing was a member of the American commission to negotiate the peace at Paris, 1918-19.

3. The Zimmerwald Conference was called early in 1915 on the initiative of the Italian and Swiss Socialist parties for the purpose of uniting the oppositional elements of the world Socialist movement. Later in the year the conference was held in a little Swiss mountain village of Zimmerwald. The majority of the participants were Left-Centrist in tendency and these “moderates” laid down the line of the conference. The Zimmerwald decisions were for this reason not at all consistently Marxist in character, but, on the contrary, nebulous and semi-pacifist. In his autobiography, Leon Trotsky gives the following account and estimate of Zimmerwald:

“The days of the conference, September 5 to 8, were stormy ones. The revolutionary wing, led by Lenin, and the pacifist wing, which comprised the majority of the delegates, agreed with difficulty on a common manifesto of which I had prepared the draft. The manifesto was far from saying all that it should have said, but, even so, it was a long step forward. Lenin was on the extreme left at the conference. In many questions he was a minority of one, even within the Zimmerwald left wing, to which I did not formally belong, although I was close to it on all important questions. In Zimmerwald Lenin was tightening up the spring of the future international action. In a Swiss mountain village, he was laying the cornerstone of the revolutionary International.”

4. L.B. Krassin (1870-1926) became active in the Russian revolutionary movement in the early Nineties. He played an important role in the early days of the Bolshevik party (1903 to 1906), serving several times as member of the Bolshevik Central Committee. The defeat of the 1905 revolution first found him with the “extreme left” (Bogdanov’s sectarian Vpered group), and then drawing away altogether from the revolutionary movement. He devoted himself to his profession, becoming one of the most prominent Russian engineers. With the October 1917 Revolution, Krassin started moving back to the revolutionary ranks. He held various government posts, serving as Soviet Ambassador to Britain and later to France. At the time referred to by Trotsky in the text Krassin held the post of Commissar of Foreign Trade.

5. Hörsing was one of the infamous galaxy of German Social Democrats, Noske and Severing in particular, who in positions of government power, succeeded in provoking sections of the German working class into precipitate actions which were then crushed in blood by use of police and troops. At the time of the movement of the miners in Central Germany, Hörsing held the post of Regierungspräsident.

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Last updated on: 19.4.2007