From New International, Vol.4 No.2, February 1938, pp.61-62.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).
WORLD REVOLUTION 1917-1936:
The Rise and Fall of the Communist International
by C.L.R. James
429 pp. New York, Pioneer Publishers, $3.50.
C.L.R. James is a leader of a British Trotskyist group. His book is an outline history of the last two decades of the world socialist movement. The only other book which covers the same period and scope is Rosenberg’s History of Bolshevism (1934). Rosenberg, who is a former leader of the German Communist Party, presented the widely accepted explanation of Stalinism: it is the legitimate offspring of Bolshevism whose character was always bourgeois-democratic or Jacobin rather than socialist. From this he deduces Lenin’s conception of the party and argues that already in 1921, at the Third Congress of the Comintern, the International was subordinated to the national-state interests of Russia. Stalin merely completed the process.
While James does not directly polemize against Rosenberg’s basic views on the Bolshevik Party, he nevertheless supplies in positive terms a refutation of the view that national-socialism had its origin in Lenin’s leadership. He disposes of both this and the more directly Stalinist view on Lenin’s conception of the relation between the Russian Revolution and the world revolution.
The dispute between the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks in 1917, he shows, was not as to whether Russia was ripe for socialism but rather whether the Russian working class should seize state power in order to give an impetus to the maturing socialist revolution on the entire European continent. Lenin reiterated time and again that Russia by itself could not build socialism but that world capitalism was rotten ripe for socialist transformation. He considered the Soviet state and the Communist International as two instruments serving a common aim: the world socialist revolution. West European social-democracy set out to “prove” the theories of its Russian co-thinkers: with state power in its hands it destroyed the revolutionary workers’ movements, helped restore capitalist stability and handed back power to the traditional bourgeois parties.
The repressive excesses of early Soviet Russia, the limitations on political democracy, the suppression of rival parties – which necessarily led to restrictions in trade union and Soviet democracy – were due not to the centralist conceptions of Lenin but to the need, in the condition of frightful isolation and hostility made possible by social democracy, to maintain workers’ power in a backward country; and thereby further the world working class struggle for emancipation. These emergency measures undoubtedly facilitated the victory of Stalinism.
As political relations between workers’ Russia and the capitalist world, and internal economic conditions improved, Lenin and Trotsky put forward plans for the struggle against bureaucracy and the gradual extension of workers’ democracy (1922-1923). However, the defeat of the German working class in 1923, which made possible a new period of capitalist stabilization, facilitated the victory of the more conservative strata of Soviet society. Stalin rationalized the views and feelings of these strata, particularly the bureaucracy: its lack of faith in the working class revolution, its desire for peaceful co-existence with the capitalist world, in a word, its conservative nationalism. The result was the reactionary theory that Russia by its own forces, without revolution in other countries, could build a socialist society within its national boundaries if ... there were no military intervention. Here is the fountain-head of the conversion of the communist parties into mere appendages of the Russian Foreign Office (and more recently of the GPU).
James however assumes that Stalin (and national-socialism) completely triumphed in 1923. In any case he underestimates the decisive effect of the economic, social and political events subsequent to this date on the definitive victory of Stalinism.
Most striking is his treatment of Stalin’s relation to the German events of 1923. He mars his otherwise valuable chapter on these events by an interpretation expressed by the title of the chapter, Stalin Kills the 1923 Revolution. To substantiate this view he cites two facts: Stalin’s letter to Zinoviev and Bukharin in 1923 wherein he expresses his views on the German situation; and Stalin’s conversation with Zinoviev and Brandler, when he urged the latter to form a coalition government with the left social-democrats in Saxony. But these merely prove that Stalin shared the views of the others and therefore shares their responsibility. James finds this insufficient: “Stalin, master of the apparatus, imposed his views.” He calls the International of 1923 the “Stalin-ridden International” and Zinoviev “his [Stalin’s] mouthpiece of these days”. In this he mistakes the beginning of the process for its culmination. He therefore overlooks the most important specific lesson of the German events, viz., the inevitable crisis of leadership on the eve of revolution, when a sudden break must be made with the old habits of life and methods of work. Brandler’s share of the responsibility is overshadowed; he is pictured as a political puppet of Stalin – which is a gross exaggeration of the actual situation.
The real weakness of the book is its treatment of the role of the party and leadership. James constantly reiterates the paramount importance of this problem but offers the most hazy view of Lenin’s conceptions. He accepts Lenin’s 1903 position as applicable today. Yet in his explanation of it he writes that it was conditioned by the existence of Tsarism. He does not succeed in conveying a clear picture of the specific episodic disputes of 1903 and differentiate them from the more permanent aspects. Nor is it correct to write that Lenin favored “democratic centralism” in 1903. Lenin’s views were avowedly centralist at that time. Nor did Lenin receive a majority on the organization question at the 1903 Congress of the Social-Democratic Labor Party. He was in a minority (23 votes for Lenin, 28 against. Martov’s proposal was adopted by a vote of 28 for, 22 against, one abstention). Lenin’s followers received the name Bolshevik when later at the same Congress, after the Economists and Bundists had left, Lenin received a majority on his propsal for the composition of the editorial board of Iskra.
James of course does not pretend to give a history of this period. Despite the above criticisms his book is a very valuable summary of the causes for the degeneration of the Comintern. He effectively explodes the myth that Stalin is responsible for the industrialization and collectivization plans in Russia. His treatment of the Anglo-Russian Committee, the Chinese revolution and the origin and significance of the People’s Front is an excellent introduction to contemporary events. The book has already made its mark in England where it has been favorably received.
If there is to be another edition of the book a few errors should be corrected:
These errors do not detract from the real merit of the book: a popularization of the Marxist criticism of the theory and practise of Stalinism.
Last updated: 24.12.2005