Leon Trotsky

The First Five Years of the Communist International

Volume 2

Speech on Comrade Zinoviev’s Report
“The Tactics of the Communist International”
at the Eleventh Party Conference

December 1921

Comrades, according to today’s newspapers, official recognition has virtually been extended to us after four years of the existence of our state. A conference will take place in the spring in which we, the soviet republic, will participate. This is unquestionably a fact of utmost importance. Nevertheless I believe that the entire European situation and the state of the world labour movement (and this bears directly upon the subject of Comrade Zinoviev’s report) are such as to lead us to conclude that the path to our recognition will be far from smooth and easy.

The existing political situation, which exerts its influence both upon the working class as well as upon the different governments, and the economic situation in Europe and throughout the world, is complex in the extreme. On the one side, we have a profound economic crisis which is just beginning to pass away; on the other side, we have an influx of political self-confidence among the bourgeoisie and its respective governments.

On the one side, there still obtain the greatest economic difficulties, commercial and industrial life remains in the grip of an unprecedented crisis; but on the other side, there are the positions already conquered by the reorganized state apparatus and the resulting confidence among the bourgeoisies that they have already surmounted their most critical moments. If the bourgeoisie of England and the bourgeoisie of France are, in the person of their ruling circles, considering now the question of our recognition from the standpoint of a trade balance, from the standpoint of commercial and industrial advantages, then the explanation for this is to be found in the above-mentioned two causes. The bourgeoisie is in a difficult economic position. It is looking for a way out that would exclude Russia from the world economic circuit, but it feels so self-confident politically as to deem it feasible to manoeuvre with so weighty a body as soviet Russia. This is the basic condition, determined by the entire post-war situation in Europe and the whole world. The economic crisis is now expending itself. Both in Europe and throughout the world there are unmistakably clear and weighty symptoms of economic revival. And this is of utmost importance for understanding the situation as a whole and the perspectives immediately ahead.

Those comrades who attended the last World Congress and followed the ideological struggle are aware that these questions came up for discussion at the World Congress, especially at the Commission sessions. These questions were discussed from the standpoint of the destinies of the labour movement in the period ahead. There was a rather indefinite grouping whose contention it was that the commercial and industrial crisis – and it was extremely acute – through which we were passing on the eve of the last congress constituted the final crisis of capitalist society, and that this final crisis of capitalist society would inexorably worsen right up to the establishment of the dictatorship of the proletariat. This conception of the revolution is completely non-Marxist, non-scientific, mechanistic. There are some who reason as follows: Since we are living in a revolutionary epoch, and since the crisis must unfailingly worsen until the complete victory of the proletariat, it therefore follows that our party must attack on the international arena, and the heavy proletarian reserves, lashed by this worsening crisis, will sooner or later come to our party’s support in the final proletarian assault. At the World Congress our delegation fought against this line of reasoning, pointing out that such conceptions were neither correct nor scientific.

There is no equilibrium between Europe and America. Europe remains dismembered, the devastation of Central and Eastern Europe is still unrepaired, and the blockade of Russia still persists in essence. The tensions in international affairs, the lack of confidence, the depreciated currencies, the huge indebtedness and the financial chaos – these are the facts and factors bequeathed by the war. And the elemental forces of capitalism seek to surmount all this. Can this be done? Or is it impossible?

Abstractly speaking, one could say that if these elemental forces were allowed to keep on operating while the proletariat remained passive and while the Communist Party continued to be an organization committing one blunder after another, then this would give rise to a situation in which the blind interplay of the economic forces would, availing themselves of the passivity of the working class and the mistakes of the Communist Party, restore in the long run some sort of new capitalist equilibrium upon the bones of millions upon millions of European proletarians, and through the devastation of a whole number of countries. In two or three decades a new capitalist equilibrium would be established, but this would at the same time mean the extinction of entire generations, the decline of Europe’s culture, and so forth. This is a purely abstract approach, which leaves out of consideration the most important and fundamental factors, namely, the working class, under the leadership and guidance of the Communist Party.

We proceed from the postulate that side by side with economics, which provides the basis for the conscious manoeuvring of a bourgeois state, there exists another factor which likewise rests upon this economic life, which takes the latter into account, appraising all its breaking-points and zigzags; and which also takes into account the manoeuvring of the bourgeois state and translates all this into the language of revolutionary tactics. The postulate of an automatic offensive movement, which some comrades tried to promote in the conviction that the current commercial-industrial crisis must needs continue until the complete victory of the proletariat, runs completely counter to the economic theory of Marx. In the era of capitalist ascent as well as the epoch of capitalist stagnation as well as in the epoch of capitalist decay and economic disintegration, the crises occur through cycles: first comes a boom, then a depression followed by another boom and another depression, with intermediate stages in between. Furthermore, as historical observations for the last 150 years attest, these cycles span on the average an interval of nine years. These oscillations have a profound internal lawfulness of their own and one can state with confidence that unless a victorious revolution takes place in 1920-21 in Europe, then in the course of 1920 or 1921 or 1922, the current acute crisis must ineluctably give way first to symptoms and signs and then to more obvious manifestations of a commercial-industrial boom. To a query concerning the character of this boom, its scope and depth, we might in answer employ an analogy with the breathing of a human organism: A man keeps drawing breath until he dies, but a youth, an adult and a dying man each breathe in a different way and the body’s health may be judged by the breathing. But nonetheless a human being keeps breathing until death. Similarly with capitalism. The oscillation of these waves, these ups and downs are inevitable so long as capitalism is not snuffed out by the victorious proletariat. But it is possible to judge from the oscillating waves of boom and crisis whether capitalism is ascending, stagnating or declining. Today we can say positively that the crisis, which erupted in the spring of 1920, attained the peak of its acuteness in May 1921, after lasting, with various fluctuations, on the average some 15 to 16, or from 17 to 18 months, has succeeded in accomplishing the work of every crisis, that is, it got rid of surplus commodities and surplus productive forces, and has thereby provided capitalism with some supplementary room for growth. There are the beginnings of a revival, expressed by this, that prices are beginning to climb, while unemployment has started to drop. Those who are interested in pursuing this question further should read Pavlovsky’s article [2] in the last issue of the Communist International. There is also the series of articles by Smith [3] in Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn, not to mention the articles in special economic periodicals. Today it is superfluous to debate whether or not the crisis is continuing to deepen.

If we are to appraise the mounting wave now observable in the labour movement, then we are obliged to acknowledge that it is bound up most intimately with the incipient commercial-industrial revival. This commercial and industrial revival and its depth will of course depend on the condition of capitalism as a whole. After the commercial and industrial crisis has surmounted and levelled the first line of trenches – the monstrous prices – the paralysed and racked productive forces shall have gained to one degree or another the possibility of moving forward (we are now witnessing this). Tomorrow, or the day after, next year or two years from now (it is hard to guess dates), the productive forces will run up against the devastation of Eastern Europe, against the frightful condition of Western Europe, against the very same currency systems which are a long way from recovery.

The boom will not be as colossal as the prosperity to which we became accustomed prior to 1914. In all likelihood this prosperity will be quite anaemic, zigzagging not only upward, but downward, too. This is beyond dispute. But nevertheless this boom marks a new phase, a new period in the evolution of economic life and of the labour movement’s policy on the basis of the boom. Whence comes this boom? Let me briefly give you its chronology.

In 1914 a crisis was about to erupt. The imperialist war came instead. It intersected the curve of economic development and there ensued a frenzied war prosperity based on pillaging, burning, destroying material forces and resources, based on piling up debts, on disorganizing the economy, on aggravating the shortage of housing and of capital construction, disorganizing all the foundations, issuing huge currency emissions, and so on. The war came to an end. It was the year 1918. Demobilization. This was the most critical moment. The workers and peasants left the army in order to come home to their broken troughs. War contracts were cancelled. The crisis deepened. Had the Communist Party been half as strong in this period as it is today in Germany or France, the proletariat could have taken power into its own hands. In 1919 (we can say this with complete assurance) there was no such Communist Party. The governments profited by its absence and, fearful of demobilization, continued their wartime economic policy throughout 1919. Emissions of paper currency were continued, old war contracts were extended or replaced by new ones solely for the purpose of averting the crisis. And the whole of 1919 passed under the sign of billions upon billions in huge subsidies granted by the bourgeois state, at the expense, of course, of the self-same popular masses. This was a sort of moratorium – preservation through artificial and fictitious means. Capitalism granted political concessions and introduced the 8-hour day. A spontaneous wave of offensives by the workers unrolled without the leadership of the Communist Party, virtually non-existent at the time.

The time for settling accounts came in 1919: the crisis erupted. The bourgeoisie and its states reckoned with the crisis but it was beyond their powers to alter the laws of capitalist mechanics. The first revolutionary movements suffered failure owing to lack of experience and the absence of the Communist Party. This was followed by the outbreak of an internal struggle, splits and disillusionment among those broad working-class circles, who had book-learning and a much simpler conception of the state of affairs in 1918. The bourgeoisie attacked, wage scales were slashed – these were the symptoms of the hour. The lack of confidence was universal, strikes were smashed, the army of unemployed became enormous.

In these conditions the crisis was bound to engender reformist illusions on one pole and anarchist illusions on the other. The Communist Party began therewith to feel itself isolated from the masses for a while. And to the extent that the Communist Party missed the critical moment of the liquidation of the war; to the extent that the bourgeoisie was able to survive this critical period; to the extent that the crisis later scourged the masses who had already suffered their first political disillusionment, to that extent only the loosening of the tentacles of this crisis could provide a new and serious impetus to the revolutionary energy of the working masses. And this is what is happening now.

This crisis was, naturally, not one-tenth big enough to enable the bourgeoisie to solve a hundredth part of its contradictions or its difficulties; but this crisis is already powerful enough to enable the working class once again to feel that it is the bearer of production, that everything hinges upon it, that the bourgeoisie and capitalism are becoming more and more dependent upon it.

And what is most important is that this time the working class already possesses a guide in the Communist Party, which is experienced in struggle, in mistakes – and the experience of mistakes is the most valuable of all experiences – and experienced in successes gained by us by utilizing the lessons of the mistakes. Such is the situation facing us at the present time.

We can say with complete assurance that the phase of internal differentiation among the working masses which became acute early in 1920 and grew sharply defined toward the end of 1920 – differentiation amid dispersion, the phase of isolation for the Communists, of their being converted into a pronounced minority which occasionally pretended to act as if it were the majority (we saw examples of it in Germany)– this phase, as a whole and in part, lies behind us. And this is the absolutely correct basis for the tactics which were proposed by the Communist International and which Comrade Zinoviev defended here.

It is hard to say, Comrades, how long this economic revival will last, or what forms it may assume. Most likely the form will be anaemic. These ups and downs will resemble paroxysms, and for this reason they guarantee revolutionary impulses. Given the leadership of a Communist Party, one can say positively that the mounting wave of the revolutionary movement, this flood-tide, will raise up all the groupings inside the working class, i.e., it will lift to the top the opportunists, the centrists and the Communists alike. The requirements of this flood-tide impel and oblige us to seek practical agreements. But at the same time, precisely because it lifts up everybody, this flood-tide is beginning to stir the working masses into action and will submit all the groupings to test in action.

Everything that has previously been the subject of theoretical polemics, of discussions among minority political parties now become a test of methods by the majority. We will ride the crest of this upswing to the very end, while others drown in this flood-tide. And precisely all these circumstances completely determine the international situation.

The bourgeoisie is very self-confident, the economic difficulties are very great; the industrial boom likewise opens up prospects for the bourgeoisie, its top circles will of course skim the golden cream from this boom (the apparatus is in their hands). Backed by the experience of the International, of its leading parties and elements, we are probing into and formulating the symptoms of this boom but the bourgeoisie is not at all able to appraise its full historical meaning. The bourgeoisie’s self-confidence is very great. And so, at this turning point, the bourgeoisie convenes its Washington Conference [4] and begins talking about inviting us to a new conference next spring. The self-confidence of the bourgeoisie, the famine in our country, our devilishly difficult economic situation – all these are indications that the bourgeoisie imagines that its negotiations with us will be far easier and simpler than they will actually prove.

America is the most far-sighted. It has concluded an agreement with Japan. Permission to Japan to plunder us is synchronized beautifully with philanthropic activities in our famine-stricken areas. The first is a perfect supplement to the second. A major manoeuvre is being executed there – in the Far East.

There are other manoeuvres in the West, much closer home. The preparations of a Karelian drillground for future Karelian events are on a far larger scale than is commonly believed among us. Along our Western frontiers there are armed bands (at the soviet congress I will have a map showing the disposition of these bands) and there has been an increased concentration of Polish troops. All this means that there is, on the one hand, a wing of the European bourgeoisie – the Polish which, among other things, is closest to us and which wants to fight us at any cost. On the other hand, among the bourgeoisie there are some, perhaps even among the highest circles, who entertain a somewhat simplified conception of what is involved in recognizing us and coming to an agreement with us. They think somewhat along the following lines; “Well, we shall call in Krassin or Chicherin. [5] We shall add a little to the (proposed loan of) $20,000,000; and then suggest to the Comintern that the thing to do is to carry out an internal purge. Let them give us some political guarantees. We shall properly clip the claws of this devil Communism, and then there will be smooth sailing.”

There is little doubt that Lloyd George and a number of others have some such picture in mind. If negotiations over our recognition ever get started, there will be quite a number of zigzags akin to paroxysms and spasms. Both Lloyd George and Briand and many others will in the course of such negotiations require means of bringing pressure upon us. They have Poland, they have Romania, they have Finland. The situation is very grave. And the historical perspective – internationally and for Russia alike – is that of a rising curve, but it will not be an evenly rising curve, but rather one with many ups and downs and the next break may occur precisely by next spring.

Suppose, however, that the negotiations are started; in that case we are, of course, bound to do everything possible to reach an agreement. I underscore this, on the one side, as a member of the Communist Party and also as the man who is most directly connected with certain aspects of this danger. But the unquestionable fact remains that the closer we come, on the international arena, to obtaining recognition, to being accredited by the bourgeois world, all the closer draws the moment when the bourgeois world will seek to gain our submissiveness in negotiations by supplementary blows and kicks and by direct military actions. From this standpoint the moves in the Far East and our nearby Western borders are profoundly symptomatic. For this reason I think that while we take stock of this entire international situation and wholeheartedly support the resolution of the Communist International which is absolutely correct and corresponds to the entire situation, we ought at the same time to say:

While the European and the world proletariat will, by resting upon the incipient economic revival, straighten out the united front of the revolutionary working masses, and will facilitate a gradual shift of the masses to our side, we must at the same time bear in mind and call the attention of the world proletariat to the fact that it is necessary to straighten out our own front too, in the fun sense of the term. If this were to happen, and if by spring the revolutionary events were to assume a stormy character (this is of course hard to guess, but it is by no means excluded), then precisely this revolutionary upsurge coming at a time when the bourgeoisie is engaged in decisive negotiations with us could alter the situation drastically. Coming at such a moment in the midst of a political manoeuvre, these very first revolutionary developments might cancel out the plans for Soviet recognition and could impel our enemies to launch an open struggle against us through the medium of those who serve as the military agents of France and of all the other capitalist countries, that is, through the medium of our closest neighbours. That is why the Red Army must be in perfect order for that moment. (Applause)


1. At this Conference in December 1921 Zinoviev delivered the report elaborating the United Front Theses which had just been adopted by the ECCI. The theses and the report were approved unanimously by the 1921 Conference.

2. Pavlovsky’s article appeared in issue No.10 of the magazine Communist International.

3. The reference here is to the 6 articles written in 1921 by Prof. Faulkner, under the pseudonym of Smith, in the magazine Ekonomicheskaya Zhizn (Economic Life), issues 284, 285 and 286.

4. The Washington Conference, sponsored by the US government, convened on November 12, 1921. The main point on the agenda was “disarmament.” It led to an intensification of arms expenditures.

5. G.V. Chicherin, born in 1872, was a diplomat by profession who worked prior to the 1905 revolution in the Czarist Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the 1905 revolution, Chicherin adhered to the Russian Socialist movement and was compelled to migrate abroad. On returning to Russia in January 1918, he joined the Bolsheviks, serving, from March 1918 until 1930 as Commissar of Foreign Affairs. Died, under Stalin, in isolation and disgrace.

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Last updated on: 19.1.2007