Clara Zetkin

The Russian Revolution & the Fourth Congress of the Comintern

(November 1922)

Source: The Communist International, No. 24, pp. 10-19, (5,433 words)
Transcription: Ted Crawford
HTML Markup: Brian Reid
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John Reed gave the book in which he described the events and impressions of the brief but decisive period in which the Russian proletariat, under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, captured political power and established its dictatorship, Ten Days That Shook the World, John Reed came to Russia as a journalist from the United States to seek an ideal. The proletarian revolution led to his becoming a Communist. With the intuition born of his great talent, he perceived the world-historical significance of the feverish events and life of the November days. Yes! These ten days indeed shook the world, and the effects of the shock are still being felt in the world. For the proletarian revolution, surging forward with a mighty impulse, must become a world revolution, carrying the new principles of humanity to victory; those principles that conceive the development of society as the conscious act of man, immediately embodied in the will and the work of the proletariat to destroy capitalism and establish communism.

An echo of the world-shattering days of the Russian revolution was heard at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International in the almost unceasing applause that preceded and followed the speeches of Comrades Lenin and Trotsky, in which they dealt with the achievements of the revolution. This echo was heard also in the enthusiastic scenes that were witnessed at the close of the Congress, when the delegates spontaneously rose like one man, and deeply inspired, made the magnificent hall of the Kremlin ring with the triumphant strains of the “Internationale.”

Indeed, the Congress was a tribute to the remarkable personalities of these two leaders of the Russian revolution and the world proletariat. And yet this demonstration was quite free from bourgeois “hero worship.” Tribute was paid to them as the personification of all those—the famous and the thousands of unnamed—who in toil and suffering and blood, carried the banner of the revolutionary proletariat to victory; as the personification of the undying Russian revolution.

Those who paid this tribute were not a chance crowd moved by sentiment. They were the representatives of sixty-one nations from all parts of the world, stirred by the Russian revolution, and whose historic power, and the consciousness of their will and readiness to act, is reflected in the Communist International. The Communist International is the expression of the profundity and durability of the world-shaking Russian Revolution; and this expression is not merely objective, but to a greater degree, even, subjective, in the consciousness of the exploited and oppressed. It is the child of the Revolution, born to enjoy the fruits of the victory and the lessons of the Russian proletariat. It is the pioneer, clearing a path for its ideals in other countries. It was out of sheer necessity and not out of any desire for decoration that this great Congress had on its agenda the item: “Five Years of the Russian Revolution.” The review of the work and achievements of the five years of revolution and work in Russia was to serve as an object lesson and guide to the proletariat in those countries still under the domination of capitalism.

A Congress of the Communist International is no more a gathering of learned historians than is a Convocation of Churchmen. It is a gathering of revolutionary fighters who consciously desire to make history, it is an international Council of War, to plan the storming of capitalism. This simple fact determined the manner and the limitations of the discussion that centred round this great question.

The desire for a clearer, and a historical understanding of the five years of the revolutionary life and labour of Soviet Russia is quite understandable. In fact, it shows that the international proletariat wishes clearly to understand what the establishment of the first State under the proletarian dictatorship, and five years of self-sacrificing struggle and labour mean for it. This knowledge is the material out of which it will forge the weapons in its fight for emancipation and its tools in its work of construction.

The discussion of this comprehensive question was divided into five sections, and each One was to be dealt with by a separate comrade. These were: Comrade Lenin, the greatest personality of the Revolution, its brain, its heart, its will; Comrade Trotsky, the organiser of the Red Army, the organiser of the defence and the victory of the Revolution; Comrade Bela Kun, the warrior in the Russian and the leader of the Hungarian Revolutions; Comrade Roland-Holst and Comrade Clara Zetkin. Thus the survey and estimation of the development of the Russian Revolution was to be handled by non-Russian communists. Unfortunately, this was not fulfilled to the degree anticipated; Comrade Roland-Hoist was prevented from taking part in the Congress.

The four reports indicated above formed one whole. The very nature of the subject required that the non-Russian communists deal with the fundamental and tactical lessons of what is historically “completed” and “ended,” whereas comrades Lenin and Trotsky had to deal with the character, the significance and the experiences of the “New Economic Policy.” This division, of course, is somewhat artificial. The Revolution is a living continuous process and cannot be divided by rigid partitions. Comrades Lenin and Trotsky could not deal with the “New Economic Policy” without at the same time dealing with beginning of the Revolution with which it is inseparably connected, and he could not therefore, avoid touching a number of questions of tactics and principle. In the same way, in dealing with fundamentals of the Russian Revolution, the “New Economic Policy” cannot be avoided. Thanks to the tremendous wealth of experience contained in the five years of proletarian revolution, dull repetition was avoided, and it was possible to discuss the various events from various points of view, and in their manifold connections. Below we will attempt to give a brief survey of the four reports submitted.

The February revolution in Russia was in its nature, a dual revolution—a bourgeoise and a proletarian revolution. But with every new lesson the revolution taught, the most important social class—the proletariat—the untenability of such a dualism became more and more apparent.

From the very first moment, the October Revolution was recognised as the legitimate proletarian revolution. The very fact that it took place is evidence of its proletarian character. With the conquest of political power by the proletariat with the aid of the peasantry and the establishment of the Dictatorship in the form of the Soviet system, the proletarian character of the revolution took definite shape. The proletariat is essentially international. With the outbreak of the Russian proletarian revolution, world revolution appears on the scene of history. For world capital it foreboded the inevitable Day of Judgment, not announced, it is true, by the trumpets of the Lord of Hosts, but not less terrible and menacing for the imperialist bourgeoisie and their vassals.

It was not merely the manifold connections with the Imperialist War that marked the great historical events in Russia, as the first battle in the world proletarian revolution. What marked it as that were the measures taken by the Russian Revolution reflecting its lofty and all-embracing aim. These were the most radical measures ever adapted by human society; their object was to destroy capitalism by abolishing private ownership of the means of production—the realisation of communism. Around this aim are crystallised, not only the Russian tendencies of development towards higher forms of historical life as a result of the conscious striving of the proletariat, but also the driving forces of revolution in countries standing on a much higher plane of development than Russia. The Russian proletariat entered the arena of history as the champion of the oppressed of all countries; it opened a new era of freedom. In smashing the Russian bourgeoisie with the Thor’s hammer of its dictatorship, it at the same time delivered a smashing blow to the capitalists, the exploiters and the oppressors of all countries. The first proletarian State in which the creators of social wealth and social culture are honoured and those who acquire these things without working are condemned, is the memento mori of the domination of the class that distilled gold out of the sweat and blood of those it enslaved, thus converting inanimate property into a power over the living.

Born out of the flames of revolution, the Russian Soviet Republic was a climax of the class struggle, but it by no means marked its end. On the contrary, the conquest of political power by the proletariat brought this struggle to boiling point, and transformed it into civil war, full of passion and horror. The dictatorship of the proletariat, the historic mission of which was to make secure the work of constructing the new society in which there would be no classes, was at first compelled to fight to save the very life of the young proletarian State from the savage attacks of the counter-revolution, and in doing so it brought into play all the means at its disposal. As Engels predicted when speaking of the proletarian revolution, all the counter-revolutionary forces of Russia, from Tsarist generals, and Liberals of all possible shades, to the S.R.’s and Mensheviks united under the banner of bourgeois “democracy.” The civil war inevitably had to give rise to the “Red Terror” as a means of protection against the “White Terror.” This most dangerous moment for the revolution dictated the necessity, not only for subduing the counterrevolution, and rendering it harmless, but also to deprive it of its energy, thus preventing the civil war from being too prolonged and recurrent.

Comrade Trotsky aptly remarked that the civil war surged around the peasantry as the most numerous section of the population. The Bolshevists’ agrarian policy, still largely misunderstood and still attacked from all sides, inclined the peasantry towards the revolution. It played a decisive role, and guaranteed victory in the war which the Soviet State was conducting against its external enemies, which war was closely interconnected with the civil war of “pure democracy” against the remnants of the Tsarist armies which, with the aid of the capitalist States, strove to crush the new society. The comparatively weak Russian bourgeoisie found allies among the capitalists in all countries, who, conscious of their international solidarity, exerted all their efforts to save their power to exploit the workers by overthrowing the dictatorship of the proletariat in Soviet Russia. Without this agrarian policy, the proletarian revolution would not have been able to create the Red Army, with its heroic, indomitable will to defence and victory.

The Paris Commune clearly showed that the proletariat, striving to break the class domination of the bourgeoisie and, by capturing political power, to emancipate itself, cannot merely take over and subordinate to its great aims the old State apparatus. It must “build it anew”—it must destroy the old apparatus and then construct its own. The Russian Revolution confirmed this historical lesson. In order to live and to build, it was first of all necessary for it to destroy. The institutions and the organs of the old Stateparliamentarism and its franchise—were the embodiment of the bourgeoisie and its auxiliary detachments for oppressing the proletariat. They had to be cleared out of the road to give place to the legislative and administrative Soviets of toilers and Soviet organs in which power was concentrated in the hands of the workers and peasants. Experience brought to the front yet another necessity—to destroy the economy of the old social order; every industrial and commercial enterprise was a fortified position of the bourgeoisie in its fight against the proletariat. In agriculture methods were employed that were in operation before the deluge; industry and trade, except for a few enterprises conducted on modern lines, were weakly developed and obsolete, Tsarism and the imperialist war completely ruined the economy of the country Meanwhile it was necessary at all costs to satisfy the vital needs of the urban proletariat and the masses of the toilers as a whole, and in addition to supply all the needs of, and to maintain, the Red Army. In the exceptional circumstances prevailing at the time this was a task of incredible difficulty which the proletarian State, fighting for its very existence, could fulfil only by resorting to the most radical and revolutionary measures.

The Communist leaders of the revolutionary Russian proletariat fully understood that a proletarian revolution is a much greater and more difficult affair than any bourgeois revolution. A proletarian revolution not only has to reconstruct the State, but also the economic basis and the whole superstructure of society. The abolition of capitalism and the introduction of communism can be the task only of the toilers themselves, and is the product of long years and decades of struggle and work towards this definite aim. Even the most powerful and centralised political power cannot perform this in one day, even with the aid of the wisest decrees. In view of this knowledge, the Bolsheviks at first presented to the proletarian State a limited, revolutionary economic programme. This programme aimed merely at the nationalisation of the land, of large scale industry, the means of communication and the banks, the establishment of a State monopoly of foreign trade and workers’ control of production.

But the exceptional circumstances referred to above compelled the Soviet Government to exceed this programme. In order to overcome the counter-revolution it was not sufficient to deprive the propertied classes of political power. It was necessary, also, to tear economic power from their hands and to transfer to the proletarian State all the means of production, all goods and valuables, and, with the aid of a centralised apparatus, itself to proceed to the organisation of national economy. Thus, amidst the storm and stress of civil war, and wars against external foes, “military communism,” this “substitute” arose, which prevented the worst from happening, and at the price of unparalleled sacrifices and suffering, and the progressive decline of the economy of the country, enabled Soviet Russia to defend itself against its enemies. As Comrade Trotsky remarked, political and military necessity did not always coincide with economic expediency.

In spite of the crudeness of this “military communism,” in the economic sphere of Soviet Russia, it appeared to the industrial proletariat as the outward expression of its power, and as a step in advance along the path to the realisation of communist society. It would have developed directly into communism if what appeared at the beginning of the proletarian revolution to be so palpably near, was destined to pass; if the revolutionary conflagration had spread to other countries where capitalism was in a more mature stage of development. Unfortunately, the proletariat in those countries did not reveal sufficient class-consciousness and a sense of international solidarity, i.e., they did not understand the imperative conditions of their own existence and the historical tasks that confronted them but allowed themselves to be led by their mortal enemies, the world bourgeoisie.

In spite of the monstrous lessons of the imperialist war, they failed to understand that the Russian proletarian revolution was their revolution, was their cause, was the first proud, bold, conscious manifestation of the world social revolution. These slaves dared not rise in revolt and deliver the death blow to the domination of the bourgeoisie. With their own hands they endeavoured, at the price of intensified exploitation and slavery, to restore the capitalist system, shaken to its foundations by the predatory war and its consequences.

Not a single proletarian State having a higher economy and culture arose to express fraternal solidarity and render aid to Soviet Russia. The proletariat in countries having an old and strong labour movement, with Socialist schools and revolutionary traditions, permitted their bourgeois governments to render political and military aid to the Russian counter-revolution and attempted to strangle the Soviet Republic by blockades, by refusing to have economic and political intercourse with it and by all other means of force and cunning. The first proletarian State was left to itself in its task of self-defence and construction. Under these circumstances, the historical conditions which placed enormous obstacles in the path of development of communism in Russia acquired monstrous force. In the first place, there was the backwardness, the weakness and the low productivity of the economic apparatus. Then, also, there was the comparative weakness and lack of experience, lack of training, the weakness of labour discipline of the industrial proletariat—which had its roots in the past—and the backward methods of production, outlook, ideology and the low cultural level of the enormous majority of the masses of the toilers. The necessity of defending the gains of the revolution held together the masses of middle-peasantry that now arose, with the industrial proletariat as with an iron ring. But, while the Soviet. Government was fighting, sword in hand, against the international counter-revolution to defend its right of existence, this peasantry by a number of revolts and refusal to deliver food to the towns expressed its protest against “military communism” as a system which seemed to doom the country to poverty and need. A ferment arose even in the ranks of the industrial proletariat. For four years the latter had been carrying on a severe struggle for freedom with incredible courage and inspiration amidst untold suffering and sacrifice.

A turning point had now been reached. Criticism and dissatisfaction was directed not against “military communism” as a system, but against the defects and failures of its organising and administrative apparatus. The far-sighted leaders of the Russian revolution desiring to retain the proletariat in their hands, and to use its strength to construct communism, had to recognise that the hour of “military communism” had struck, and the Soviet Government was compelled to substitute it by “N.E.P.”—the New Economic Policy. Without a doubt this was a policy of compromise with the petty bourgeois individualist peasantry and with Russian and foreign capital. The kernel of this policy was the substitution of the food tax-in-kind for the requisitions. In connection with this it was necessary to permit freedom of trade and freedom to conduct handicraft and petty production, and to give to capitalists the right to lease and receive as concessions large enterprises. But to assert that in doing this, the Russian revolution betrayed communism and abandoned its lofty aims, or even that it has blocked the path to these aims, is a falsehood or a misunderstanding. The efforts of the leaders are undeviatingly directed along this path. Passionately loyal to what should be, but calmly weighing up the situation as it is, they have kept the path clear for Soviet Russia to reach its aim. In spite of hesitations and waverings, the industrial proletariat are marching with their leaders through gloomy canyons and over towering crags towards communism, with the support, the confidence and the sympathy of the peasantry.

The New Economic Policy is dictated not only by the desire to preserve the Soviet system; it was economically inevitable and necessary to reconstruct society in a spirit of communism. Indeed, what is the calculation upon which it is ultimately based? On Russian capitalism fulfilling its historical tasks, which hitherto it had hardly attempted; the perfection of the means and instruments of labour; the expansion and growth of the productive forces; the systematic regulation, of labour in enterprises, in groups of enterprises and in whole branches of industry. Briefly, on raising the technical arid organisational level of economy for the purpose of increasing not only the productivity of human labour-power, but also the training, experience, discipline and the fitness of the worker.

The decisive factor in the role of capitalism in Soviet Russia is the fact that it is no longer master in the State and therefore can no longer be absolute master in the factory. An enterprise, under the economic control of a private capitalist, is not “his enterprise”; it is the property of the proletarian State, leased to him, or granted as a concession governed by laws strictly fixing the limits of extracting profits. Side by side with private capitalism there is its powerful competitor, the “State capitalism” of the Proletarian Republic. The very thing which the private capitalist does unconsciously—or consciously strives to prevent—is for proletarian State capitalism a conscious aim and a supreme law, viz.: to lay down the economic basis of communism and to secure its most speedy and perfect realisation. It is true that owing to the pressure of circumstance, it is compelled to achieve this aim by capitalist methods and all the time must bear in mind the contemptible “business basis,” However, State Capitalism is radically different from ordinary capitalism in view of the revolutionary circumstance that State Capitalism is headed by the proletariat as a dominant class. In this the trades unions and the co-operatives acquire enormous importance. With the aid and support of the proletarian State these institutions grow up, not only into organs of struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression, but also into organs of communist production and centres for training communist organisers and managers of production.

The New Economic Policy of the Soviet Government is the first example of proletarian national economy forming a transition stage from capitalism to socialism and communism. Naturally, this form must bear all the birthmarks and scars inflicted by the historical conditions of the period prevailing in Soviet Russia. When the proletariat in more highly developed capitalist countries establish their dictatorship, their period of transition towards socialism will be accomplished with far fewer difficulties and dangers; there will be less groping and blundering than was the case with their Russian brothers, who have acted here the part of pioneers. However, yet even in these countries—and this is often denied by dreamers—there will inevitably be a transitional period and a transitional system of economy from capitalism to communism, which will raise difficult problems similar to those which the proletarian revolution of Soviet Russia is solving successfully to-day. Of course, the conditions will be different, but essentially the problems will be the same. Just as the Russian workers and their leading class party paid for the lesson to the workers of other countries by their struggle for political power, so are they now paying for the lesson in communist construction.

The price—the New Economic Policy—is a high one, but it is justified by the political and economic results. The stubborn sabotage of the peasantry is giving way to a striving to increase output.

The food tax is collected almost without the application of measures of compulsion. These taxes, together with the programme for reviving agriculture drawn up by the Soviet departments, are making the peasant farming part of the economy of the country. Side by side with the old traditions of small, individual peasant farming there is developing the beginnings of co-operative farming. The relations between town and country are improving; the peasantry has become a strong bulwark of the Soviet system.

The light industry is undoubtedly passing through a period of boom and the number of enterprises started and the number of workers employed in them, as well as the productivity of labour, are increasing. Only the heavy industry, which is mainly in the hands of the Government, and whose resources are yet small, is rising but slowly; but even here, improvement is to be observed. The fear that private capitalism would hinder the development of the young State capitalism, would out-compete it and have a damaging influence on wages and working conditions, have proven unfounded. The State enterprises, including transport, employ nearly two million working men and women, whereas the private enterprises employ only eighty thousand. If from the latter figures we subtract the number of workers employed in enterprises leased from the State by co-operative societies, it would be reduced to forty-five thousand.

Of not less importance is the fact, that, generally speaking, the State enterprises are the largest and technically best-equipped productive enterprises. The average number of workers per factory employed in private enterprises is eighteen, while that in State enterprises is two hundred and fifty.

During 1921 the rouble remained stable for three months, while in 1922 it remained stable for five months. Taken as a whole the prices of articles of general consumption declined, while wages, on the other hand, increased. The standard of living of the workers employed in industry is approaching to pre-war level, and for some groups and places it even exceeds it. Undoubtedly, unemployment, the house shortage, and the effects of the famine-period still make themselves felt, but for all that the masses feel that they are recovering and the whole country seems to seethe with economic life. The people are inspired with the prospects of better times and are filled with hope. The new economic policy has not weakened the inherent ties of the Russian proletariat and the Communist Party nor its inspiration with Communist ideas. They have learned to estimate the new economic policy objectively and recognise it to be inevitable and useful. They know the value of the Soviet system and are fully aware that it can be preserved only so long as the Communists remain at its head. The people are filled with an unquenchable desire for education, to acquire knowledge and ability to master production and all the mighty forces of social construction, in order to be able consciously to develop their mighty energy.

Thus after five years of revolution, the Soviet Government, the Russian Soviet System, stands much more solidly and is much more fruitful than ever. Thanks to it, the Russian proletariat can justly pride itself on its great communist gains. Looking back to the position in 1917, we have to confess that the only thing that the Soviet Government has surrendered in the economic sphere is that which the Russian proletarian State had been unable to organise and run itself. By doing this, however, it has merely strengthened its economic positions which command the main route to communism. The nationalisation of land, transport and communication and the large and important industrial enterprises, the banks and the State monopoly of foreign trade—all these have been retained without the necessity for attacks and retreats, which compels the admiration and tribute of even the enemies of Soviet Russia. The proletarian dictatorship, in a ridiculously short time, has put an end to the strongest survivals of feudalism much more effectively than any bourgeois revolution has ever done, and has sown the germs of a new and better social life in social institutions and in the consciousness and free impulses of millions, which no counter-revolution can destroy.

The existence of the Soviet system, guaranteed by the new economic policy, is a conditio sine qua non for the constructive development of the Russian proletarian revolution along the path towards communism. The only power capable, and historically destined to carry out the glorious ideals of communism stands or falls by the class domination of the dictatorship of the proletariat.

The mighty and decisive significance of the conquest and retention of political power by the proletariat is strikingly illustrated by comparing the process of development of the proletarian revolution and dictatorship in Soviet Russia with that monstrosity, the bourgeois revolution and bourgeois dictatorship in Germany. No matter what sphere one takes—economic, social or cultural, home politics or foreign politics—in Germany we see weakness, disintegration, decline, retrogression and resignation. In Russia we see revival, growing strength, unrestrained progress, hope and activity.

The five years of the Russian revolution from the first day to the last covers the Communist Party of Russia with undying glory as the leading class party, the leading revolutionary party of the proletariat. Simultaneously with boldness and daring along the path towards its ideal, it was able to exhibit calm calculation in the estimation of realities. Of course, in its revolutionary policy it sometimes committed mistakes and was compelled now and again to deviate from its path. But, taken as a whole, it directed its aim towards the achievement of communism, with classical consistency and directness. It was the first titanic attempt to apply the theories of Marx to the practical every-day labours and struggles, and to convert the development of society from a play of blind, anarchic forces, into an instrument of human will and consciousness.

The five years of the Russian revolution glaringly reveals the two mighty roots of the iron will and the colossal executive powers of the Russian Communist Party. The first is the inherent organic ties between the leaders of the party and the rank and file and between the party and the proletarian masses which it leads. Thanks to this the conscious will and vital energy of the leaders are nothing more or less than the crystallisation of the will and energy of the party, of the revolutionary movement. Only thanks to this could the Bolsheviks become and remain the revolutionary class party of the proletariat, and inspire the revolutionary movement of the broad masses of the proletariat. The second root is its strong, ideological and organisational compactness and discipline, which sternly reflect all that is best in the historical life of the proletariat, and energetically puts it into operation. The compactness and discipline of the Russian Communist Party are by no means based upon compulsory and blind obedience. They are the fruit of the training, of the penetration, the power of analysis and the ability of the leaders to make their influence felt upon and win the confidence of the rank and file. It is a clear and strong expression of mutual solidarity. Every member is trained to a conscious fulfilment of duty. In the Russian Communist Party there are no such things as “merely dues-paying members.” Everyone of its members must serve it and fulfil some definite task.

Apart from the lessons of principles and tactics which they have taught to the class-conscious vanguard of the proletariat, the five years of the Russian Revolution lead us to conclusions that should be engraved in letters of fire on the hearts of everyone of us; and that is, that the subjective factor in history is a great and decisive factor for the revolution. “Men are making history as they must, but they are making it,” said Engels. The Russian Communist Party and the Russian proletariat have converted this phrase from theory into practice. This is the great historical service they have rendered; the Russian Revolution is the mightiest product of the human mind that history has ever known. This great task may have been commenced within the borders of a single nation, but it must be completed on an international scale. From the greatness of the first act can be judged the greatness of that which the proletariat living beyond the frontiers of Soviet Russia have so far failed to do, but which they must do as a matter of duty in order to advance the world revolution. The further progress of social construction of the proletarian State depends on the unrestrained rise of the tide of world revolution, destined to sweep away the domination of the world bourgeoisie. On the other hand, the fate of the proletarian State will determine the fate of the exploited and enslaved workers of all other countries. The Russian Revolution will do one of two things: either it will give an impetus to the mortal enemies of the proletariat to strengthen the positions of bourgeois class domination, or rouse the exploited and oppressed to break their chains and win the world.

The Congress did not discuss the question of the Russian Revolution. It stood in profound respect before its mighty accomplishments and its unrestrained, rising power and limited itself merely to a brief resolution of sympathy and solidarity. The shock which the Russian. Revolution has dealt the world has not subsided and demands deeds.

The discussions and the decisions of the Congress on all questions were all conducted from the point of view of the Russian Revolution, and were influenced by it. Face to face with the Russian proletariat, wounded and scarred in the storms of battle and suffering through which the sacred torch of Communism has guided it, the Congress of the Communist International could not, like the reformists, with an obsequious gesture say to the rulers and exploiters “Look! Take warning!” but turned to the exploited and the enslaved of the capitalist world with the appeal “Look! You must act!”


Last updated on 12.1.2008